The Hitchhiking Robot Learns About Philadelphians by Vernita Hall (2017, Moonstone Press)

8_S_Klinger_Fluid_Harmony_S_Klinger
Fluid Harmony by Susan Klinger

Vernita Hall serves on the poetry board of Philadelphia Stories.

Vernita Hall sends the reader on a tour without a tour guide in her chapbook, The Hitchhiking Robot Learns About Philadelphians, winner of the 2016 Moonstone Chapbook Contest.

The hitchhiking robot is tossed into Philly neighborhoods, parks, historic venues and cavernous churches with even bigger histories. We are presented with “voices of the immortal dead, whispering their myriad stories”to serve as a map along the way.

We follow these whispers like trails — some marked with careful footsteps, others like stomps. Hall employs a series of voices, like the precise and deliberate speaker of “Shadow Man.” “Were you [Thomas Jefferson] bound instead to your pursuit of happiness, / savoring your fine wines, / your little mounts, / Monticello and mulatto Sally Hemmings?”

Then, there is the emphatic and refreshingly audacious voice of the speaker of “What Goes Around.” “So what if he was president             He still a skank … Some father figure / When a cherry got busted wasn’t ‘bout no tree —”

Despite this lightning-like codeswitching, Hall’s tone maintains perfect pitch with instances of captivating imagery. Her intelligent use of local color takes a literal turn in the ekphrastic and meditative piece on a painting by Jerry Pinkney. This poem, “Seeing Red,” offers a blend of  blood, communism, Red Sea, red sun and Rutgers Scarlet. Such stirring images are punctuated with rhythm and thoughtful use of sound in “In Pandora’s Box” where hope is “viral as saliva from a flea riding vermin bareback craving a crevice             crack      the dark.”

Although many of the voices in The Hitchhiking Robot are keen with criticism, Hall’s wit is just as sharp as she implements timely comic relief with WEB Du Bois as Thor and Harriet Tubman as Nightcrawler at her historical rendition of Comic-Con. And the fate of the titular hitchhiking robot at the hands of Dell E. Terious and Ms. Terious reads like an article from The Onion in verse — one that ends with the perfect punch: “And that’s the way it is.”

But interspersed between these jovial moments are Ozymandian reflections on posterity and its worth. Hall ruminates on the both conscious sacrifices and uncontrollable conditions that send identities spiraling — some for mere survival, some for fame. In “To Charles Mason,” she writes in the voice of Ben Franklin: “After one has quit the scene it is perhaps desirous to suppose that history might underline some contribution of merit, or durability, that some of one’s words might bet by-lined in some corner of the universe … But one should not grow proud upon it. The Supreme takes amiss an excess of pomposity.”

In The Hitchhiking Robot Learns About Philadelphians, Vernita Hall demonstrates that sometimes a good reputation can outlive its corporeal bounds, but this isn’t always the case. Fame can get lost in the coffin when history decides it’s no longer valuable. Other times, fame comes back as a bad ghost, an ugly twin that lives on and on, haunting cities and nations, flaunting infamy and a full set of sharp teeth.

Flesh Enough, poems by Darla Himeles (Get Fresh Books, LLC, Union, New Jersey, 2017)

5_Arvid_Bloom_Dobro
Dobro by Arvid Bloom

Let me begin by stating outright that I believe it is not easy to write poems about the environment and endangered species, such as the elephant, the white rhino, and the blue whale, without veering into the country called “preaching.” I have tried some myself, and I have not succeeded.

In her debut chapbook of poems, Flesh Enough, Darla Himeles’s first poem, “They’ll Say the Blue Whale’s Tongue Weighed As Much As an Elephant,” begins: “Someday your daughter / will voice this fact / and ask / what an elephant was like.” To begin the poem with the premise that elephants no longer exist and we need to find words to describe them to children, quite frankly, forced this reader to stop and ask herself, “How would I do it?”

Himeles uses quotidian objects to describe lost creatures—words like “couch cushions,” “sunbaked tires,” and “Volkswagen.” She also manages to show her readers all of those crazy things a parent might do to help a child feel, smell, and see a thing now gone, such as running “with palm leaves” and rocking “the arc of your body / over couch cushions / to show how rescuers grunted / CPR.”

Himeles uses powerful restraint when interweaving the everyday with unspeakable destruction and the endangerment of both animals and humanity.

In her poem “Redolence,” Himeles again uses smell and scent to approach extermination:

 

Is redolence passed?

Those who never slept

under an almond tree’s branch

 

might not catch almond blossoms

on a breeze—

even if their grandmothers dreamt

by the Dead Sea.

 

and then:

 

I, too, born beyond Babylon—

who never knew bitter almond

crept through the vents

 

as my ancestors showered in gas—

might not taste almond’s breath

sour-sweet in a morning kiss.

Never directly addressing the Holocaust, Himeles instead uses smell, memory, and the possibility of inherited olfaction to move from a daughter asking how elephants smell in her first poem of the book to the smells of her ancestry, both sweet almond blossoms and the bitter almond odor of the Nazi’s hydrogen cyanide.

In her love poem for her wife Betsy, C&D Canal, August 2008, Himeles’s language is somewhat lusher, mirroring the earth’s landscape and its creatures and, of course, love, but it is never intrusive. Using couplets this time, Himeles again speaks to and weaves together the past and the present, as in these lines:

 

I’d wed you tomorrow, or next summer. For you,

ancient sea creatures slap long-vanished flesh

 

against dusty shins, squid legs flutter like blackgum

leaves in autumn fog. As light quakes the chestnuts free

 

of your eye, the soft rattle of Delaware’s cephalopod dead

kisses my palm—our bodies hold this Late Cretaceous love song.

 

It is this ability to weave, like a family quilt, love and grief, both personal and social, with well-researched facts, that makes this book so remarkable. For instance, in her poem “Fuchsia,” Himeles begins:

Whole years lumber sometimes

heavy-footed, un-poachable,

encircled by armed guards

 

like the last male northern white

rhino, until the thick knees

buckle and the beast bows

 

to beige earth.

 

followed immediately by the lines:

 

Sometimes

silence breathes heavy

between siblings. She tells me

she never took out the trash

those years Mom worked three jobs

 

and I went east.

 

Himeles ends this poem referring to the rhino and to time spent with her sister:

 

The rhinoceros

no longer is horned; nothing left

to harvest. Those years bowed

to the earth. We pluck fuchsia

blossoms we never knew grew here,

scatter smashed petals down the walk.

 

There is something achingly beautiful and haunting created by weaving together the poached rhinos and siblings struggling to make sense of their old life in an apartment. The use of repetition, as with “bows” and “bowed,” links the species, rhino and human. The sibilance of “silence,” “breathes,” and “siblings,” followed by the thick-hided consonant-laced “scatter,” “smashed,” and “petals,” caused this reader to become part of the poem, its weighty breath, and its recognition of loss. Everything is fragile and vulnerable and needs to be cared for.

Himeles has pulled off a remarkable feat; she has wedded fine language and the music of poetry with the horrors of history and tragedy of extinction. For this, I am grateful.

Walking Toward Cranes, Amy Small-McKinney (Glass Lyre Press, 2017)

 

Many startling images weave through Amy Small-McKinney’s new book of poetry, Walking Toward Cranes.   One of my favorites is  “there is a turtle in my mouth…he will not be banished.”

Small-McKinney is creating a moving landscape that mirrors her struggle and journey with breast cancer and what comes after.  Her images are stark but also personal: “I am beginning to remember my body/I will wake up tomorrow.  I am not a leaf.”  She moves from the intimate to the universal: “Inside a hollowed out body, what is left?” to “When I was a girl I used my hair as a kind of weapon.”

The poet is not afraid to reach beyond sentiment to unspeakable feelings, unknowable outcomes: “My real life hides in trees, beneath deep snow./If I open my door, the wind will divide me.”

The book is divided into three sections: Treatment, The Healing, and Walking Toward Cranes.  In the poem “Inside the world” in the first section, she writes:

 

I may be wrong or misunderstand borders.

That’s cancer.

Every day my body is a different place.

 

In these poems, Small-McKinney is not afraid to open the door to her sadness, her pain.  But she can ground herself enough to incorporate what she is losing:

 

I should lug the limbs felled from the storm,

whole trees at places,

pile them beside the road for pick up.

 

In the second section, The Healing, she begins to see a way back: “Home is not where I live,/it is sleeve of a daughter.”  She describes the physical losses and heartache of having her body invaded by an unwelcome intruder: “For the couch, it is the shaved head,/hours of a body hanging on as though a raft”.  But she is also not afraid to reveal the depth of her fear: “Well, she is afraid.  Seductive fire,/articulate rain, all of this being alive.”

She grapples with the physicality of the body and her time taking in all the lessons that implies:

 

a bog can be destroyed.

Still, I am rainwater.

I love what is unexpected.

What falls from the sky, falls into me.

 

She lets herself imagine all directions, past, present, future:

When I was a little girl, night after night,

I imagined a funeral, a torn black ribbon

pinned to my blouse.

 

When the poet reaches the third section, Walking Toward Cranes, she begins to feel a future reappear and lets herself imagine in another way:

I want to travel, probably won’t.

I want to walk into a village where a woman weaves yarn,

squat beside her, not condescending,

not sentimental, but because I am lost.

 

Her honesty about her own feelings of loss pervade this book, but there is a curve of repair and coming back to the world with new insights:

 

I know there is another tree that sways

outside my new home, new window.

It tells me when the world is hard,

when it is forgiving.

 

This is a moving, beautiful book about walking through darkness and coming to light, without complaint.  Small-McKinney has a clear vision kept focused on the real world and the world of endless possibilities.

 

Loplop in a Red City, Kenneth Pobo (Circling Rivers, 2016)

Seen as pleasant and enriching in easy times, in times of crisis the arts take on greater significance. In his collection Loplop in a Red City, poet Kenneth Pobo uses ekphrastic poetry, poetry inspired by works of visual art, to consider scenes from domestic life as well as scenes from an apocalypse. Intersecting in subtle, but increasingly startling ways, the poems build together, reaching an urgent pitch, absorbing both ease and discomfort.

Domestic scenes including family members, kitchens, gardens, and homelife expose the vulnerability of comfort. Having a home or family suggests losing a home or family — throughout the collection, this dual celebration/anxiety of domestic life repeats in a variety of ways. The poem “Empire of Lights” opens the collection with the line “Inside the house our peace rumbles” (13), setting the stillness and quiet of the house’s interior against external threats: “Gunfire breaks the calm, like cathedral bells…” and “time’s red bear…knock[s] over the mailbox.” Many of the poems in the section “Crow at Daybreak” suggest a similar vulnerability of the home to threats from inside and out. Parents and other relatives appear dreamy and unmoving, presenting a danger of stagnation. The next section’s title, “Get Far Enough Out” reinforces the need of the speaker to move beyond the domestic and into less familiar threats.

The collection’s title comes from the subject of a Max Ernst painting, Loplop Introduces Himself and most of the poems refer to artwork from a variety of painters and artists from the early 20th Century. Poems refer to René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Leonora Carrington, and other artists known for surrealism. Their works depict the fragmented psyche as well as startling violence, many working in the years before, during, and following the First World War, the Spanish Civil War, and Second World War. The work of these artists reflects a changing reality: a clearer understanding of the human potential for cruelty and destruction. The work of many surrealists also reflects a greater awareness of human psychology and how we must break and re-break inherited molds and models in order to keep up with what we learn about ourselves.

Throughout Pobo’s collection, the concerns of the speaker shift from family and household, to nation and planet. In all of these areas, we must face uncomfortable truths and find ways to reconcile ourselves to our world. In the poem, “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of a Civil War),” the domestic and the political fold together over a meal while “avoid[ing] the trombone anchorman” (76). The speaker anticipates future bureaucratic indignities:

 

…Someday

 

we’ll have to bleach our bones

before presenting them to the Office

of Bone Collection.

 

Though “we scream,” the gesture is unsatisfying and further alienates the speaker: “Perhaps / we still look normal.” The following poem, “The Third of May,” offers a similar sentiment:

 

….Buildings

look as they did yesterday.

So much the same but smells

unbearable. (77)

Though Goya and Dalí were separated by more than a century, their work reflects the evolving terrors of war. In Kenneth Pobo’s poems, the reified threat of danger seen in surrealist art is felt keenly, but internally. The poems’ speakers seem caught between feeling afraid or angry and appearing “okay.” This tension between external calm and interior turmoil runs through many of the poems. In “The Red City,” the figures of Paul Delvaux’s painting appear bored or dull:

 

…Nobody’s

alarmed the meaning

of life hasn’t yet been

put in a zoo. (78)

Our response to chaos is often to steel ourselves and carry on, but for many of us, the bathwater is gradually starting to boil. These poems reassure us that we are not imagining things — the world around us is troubled and uncertain.

The final poem, “Pastoral” echoes this sense of uncertainty — “You/can hardly tell human/from animal” (90). And even though the speaker addresses a “you” who wants the world to stop, it is allowed to continue spinning. Though we recognize the harm we do, we still prefer the familiar rotation:

…You say let it spin,

which it does, as if trying to weave

a lethal wonderful calm.

 

The calm is both “wonderful” and “lethal”; we may not outlive our own masks of ease.

While individual poems set-up and break-down scenarios of familiarity and comfort, taken as a whole, the collection urges the reader to find comfort, if not remedy, in uncertainty. Kenneth Pobo’s Loplop in a Red City offers space to both our fears of destruction and our hopes of avoiding it.

 

Don’t Tell Me Your Childhood Was Not A Minefield

7_Jeff_Thomsen_Valley_Forge_Farmhouse_Summer
Valley Forge Farmhouse, Summer by Jeff Thomsen

A review of Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Guess and Check

 

An effective technique in poetry is to guide the reader on a journey that feels like you’re discovering together as opposed to resorting to a heavy-handed didactic approach. Guess and Check is not a collection of poetry, however, Rutkowski employs this tactic as we follow his protagonist on life’s obstacle-ridden path; a process of trial and error while navigating a magnified reality—scenarios wild enough you want to believe they couldn’t possibly happen, but not far-fetched enough to be disregarded as absurd. As a result, these stories uncannily hit home. You get that back of your head worry—somewhere in America lives are unfolding in a frighteningly similar fashion.

 

The family dynamics in Guess and Check illustrate how a person acquires life experience—often in bits and pieces, by hearsay and chance—like the child who touches the stove and learns it is hot, Rutkowski’s protagonist puts his finger in his father’s fly-tying vice. His father initially shows him the vice saying, “You should learn to make something useful.” Playing with the vice later, the child notes, “My fingertip would have burst if I’d kept going.” In Guess and Check, all is consistently on the brink, consistently on the line.

 

Guess and Check is a thought-provoking book, subtly nudging the reader to reflect how our choices shape our reality and lead us to our present selves. Engaging with the text, here’s something that tumbled onto the page after sitting with G&C for a while: We learn lessons over and over. Mind you, I don’t mean we learn the same lesson over and over, although certainly in some cases that is also a truism. Rather, my sense is we adopt a methodology for lesson learning, and we rely on this strategy to find our footing in any new circumstance. At some point, we all learn that fire burns. How we learn that fire burns is what makes us individuals. The branch splits with each choice creating the unique tree that is a human life.

 

Reading these stories, I occasionally felt Murphy’s Law—that anything that can go wrong will go wrong—was somehow at play. The following, though it may appear to be a low stakes example, illustrates the point well—if you can’t even manage the energy to secure a decent night’s sleep it feels the universe has aligned against you.

 

Once awake, I noticed that the air had gone out of my mattress; I was resting on the hard floor. I blew up the mattress, but I was too tired to inflate it completely. When morning came, I was again lying on the floor, with only a sheet of plastic between my body and the wood.

 

Instead of dwelling on grim fatalism—calling to mind Hunter S. Thompson’s term “The Doomed”—Rutkowski’s characters are resilient—they don’t get down on themselves, they roll with the punches. After a scene of brutality, in the next vignette they generally seem no worse for the unpleasantness experienced before. Or perhaps, these characters are simply that well-trained in compartmentalizing the horrors. You put them in a box, you put that box in the attic, and you do not enter that attic under any circumstances.

 

What I said about characters managing to appear undamaged is not wholly true. From scene to scene the protagonist may seem to cope, but then you’ll wince watching his exposure to abuse without displaying emotion. Of course, this is a survival mechanism—but from the outside looking in it’s frightening to bear witness to the learned behavior response that results from repeated trauma.

 

When a teenager shoots one of the family dogs and the protagonist confronts the teenager for an explanation, the teenager says, “He was running across my yard, so I picked up my .22 and plugged him.” The section breaks here.

 

Violence and gunplay escalates throughout the text. Here too there seems to be a lesson about indoctrination into normalcy. Later, the protagonist is living in New York and decides to reclaim a gun his father had given him as a child. He looks into obtaining a permit, but the paperwork is cumbersome. He opts not to bother with the paperwork; possession of a firearm is simply not a big deal to him. After all, he grew up around guns.

 

He’s babysitting a child one day and lets the child handle the weapon. When the mother arrives to pick up the child she is less than pleased.

 

In this next gunplay example, Rutkowski’s dark humor comes through:

 

“Did you have to take a course to learn how to shoot?” my friend asked.
“Yes,” I said. “The instructor set up a cabbage and told us, ‘This has the consistency of a man’s head.’ Then he pointed a shotgun at it and pulled the trigger.
“My god,” my friend said.
“Just showed what could happen.” I said.

 

Rutkowski employs humor that offsets the frenetic uncertainly and darkness. And the humor increases when the protagonist is an adult. The reader can bear in mind that there are glimmers of light at the end of the winze while navigating the dangerous waters of childhood that occupy the early sections of G&C.

 

Here’s a glimpse into Rutkowski’s protagonist as an adult:

 

Later, I walked my guest out to the street and helped her hail a cab. I must have been nervous, because when I shut the car door for her, the metal frame hit me in the face.

 

Before I wrap up, here are a few more examples of Rutkowski’s memorable voice:

 

Even in daylight, the flames were filled with energy.
In the shared kitchen I found lizards living behind the appliances. They were geckos of some sort. They clung to the walls when I made coffee. Maybe they liked the heat radiating from the stove coils, or maybe they just liked clinging to walls.
He said he wanted to go to the bottom of the pit. He said he was already there.

 

In these vignettes, Rutkowski offers lessons that are not always clear cut. And, at times, you’re left wondering what it all means, what kind of lasting effect would these experiences have on a person. As the protagonist is followed from childhood to adulthood, I kept wondering how someone could undergo all of these damaging experiences and come out on the other side unbroken. Maybe that’s a question Guess and Check requires of its readers. Who among us can say they’ve made it this far unscathed?

 

 

A Secret of Long Life: Familial Heartache & Happiness in Elegant, Timeless Fashion

liz dolan philadlephia storiesPoet Liz Dolan paints the ordinary in passionate hues in A Secret of Long Life, a collection of poems that move across the page with the sweet, haunting ache of memory. From now distant days as a Catholic school girl to the death of a young brother that still lingers, Dolan drags us through every human emotion via very simple, very real human experiences.

With a chapbook sliced into four equally heavy parts, Dolan begins our journey with stories of her mother, glimpses into her childhood, and the first gut-wrenching look at a small brother lost too soon. In “The Boy Who Swings on Our Line”, a young girl watches as the ghost of her sibling dances through the family laundry hung out on the line. Dolan writes, “From the open window / I see as he swells my father’s overalls, / crooks the knees and bellows as though/with Dad he flags the six a.m. from Darien.” The poem ends in childlike melancholy, with the girl telling her brother to leave the family alone. “I am not sure/if I want him to stay and play. I lie. / Go, release us all from your awful presence, / airborne shape-shifter, powerful child, so we can smell fresh cotton against our pasty cheeks”.

Dolan depicts the nuns of her youth as elegant, damaged powerhouses, a refreshing step back from a usually stone-like stereotype. Her admiration for her teachers shines through in pieces like “I Longed to Be as Lovely”, in which she describes Sister Purissima “in her opal linen gown / her tanned cheeks backlit by her veil / like an angel surprised”. Each piece continues to sway and swoon from memories of death, family and school days, pausing occasionally to smile and turn to face something purely innocent, as is shown in the lighthearted “Sunday at the German Bakery” where a girl dreams of a boy “who clerked at a bakery, slipping his fingers in and out / tying the knot on the white box.” She is taken with him and delivers imagery we can almost taste, with “hot-crossed lovers nibbling / apple cobbler, yolked together / hobbling along until the glaze wears off.” Part Four carries us into Dolan’s later years, her life still intertwined with life and death, now as a mother and grandmother. With grace she describes her grandson with Down’s syndrome, taking care to maintain her love and admiration for him and the patience of her own daughter.

Dolan’s poetry is real, it is grainy, and in the best way it is plain. Every word crawls from the page with a simplicity that makes it all so very relatable; and that is just what keeps us contemplating the beauty in every piece. A Secret to Long Life is a collection of family history that will remain timeless even after the pages have yellowed.

Splendor

By Emily Bludworth de Barrios

(H_NGM_N BKS, 2015)*

Emily Bludworth de Barrios’ poem “All Souls’” was selected as an editor’s choice in the 2013 Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry

splendor - philadelphia storiesIn her 2015 full-length poetry collection Splendor, Emily Bludworth de Barrios grapples with morality and virtue as qualities at odds with a contemporary, consumerist lifestyle. She uses lines from Horace Walpole’s 1764 Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto as the titles of the individual poems, a move that highlights the distinctions between righteousness and vice. An online summary of Otranto suggests that its central antagonist, Manfred, is consumed by greed, lust, and fear of a prophesied fall from power. The object of his lust, the princess Isabella, rejects Manfred in favor of the noble young peasant Theodore. Similarly, the reader is asked to consider her values in relation to her privilege.

Titles such as “are the devils themselves in league against me?” and “were tempestuously agitated, and nodded thrice, as if bowed by some invisible wearer” create a verbal history — the conflicts here are not new. The juxtaposition of archaic lines from Walpole and Bludworth de Barrios’ contemporary tone creates friction: as Walpole presents clear good and bad characters, Bludworth de Barrios ranks impulses along a spectrum. We cannot navigate today’s world without some moral struggle. In “May the saints guard thee,” she writes, “There are effortless persons,/and you are not one of them.”

One of the obstacles to virtue in these poems is the speaker’s desire for comfort. In “I would pray to heaven to clear up your uncharitable surmises,” Bludworth de Barrios writes, “I always knew I would/marry a rich man.” Through a swirl of short lines, she points to the literary sources of her expectations. She amends her earlier statement:

It was not wealth I was
after but more like acclaim or arrival.
How beguiling is the sense
of unearned accomplishment (10).

The accumulation of things: “You almost love the things you own./With a fitful, envious love” (“were tempestuously agitated…,” 15), expands to include the accumulation of people: “Friends like accessories…” (“and she was not sorry,” 19). The self expects to be always central:

All of the advertisements are like you you you.
Like this coffee travelled 1000 miles
to be the two perfect inches
of your espresso (“any increase of tenderness to me,” 17).

The speaker of these poems knows what is right and just – and knows the effort required to maintain that rectitude.

The voice in these poems strives to navigate an evolving moral landscape while seeking to insulate herself from — or to anticipate — critique. We are “infants…. flying/across the sky” without anchor: “With/a crooked list of priorities” (“If thou art of mortal mould,” 75). In the poem “I! My Lord!” Bludworth de Barrios considers the upright conscience that knows better:

Your ideal self has always been
lurking.
Somewhere
the ideal self is sudden and kind (58).

Graceful and bracing, Bludworth de Barrios’ Splendor urges close examination of the values and virtues we celebrate (or ignore) in ourselves and our surroundings. If we can read the literature of the past as a template, we must learn to read our own stories and recognize our own heroism and villainy. — Courtney Bambrick

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

“I need an interesting character in a difficult situation in order to write.”

So said novelist and short story writer Bonnie Jo Campbell during her master class at Rosemont last October, the day before the Push to Publish conference.

 “Then,” she continued, “I develop the situation to make the best use of that character.”

Those of us lucky enough to be there were treated to a five-hour long ‘up close and personal’ session with one of America’s finest writers.  This on the eve of the publication of her fifth book, the story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, glowingly reviewed that Sunday in the New York Times.

What a rare and wonderful experience!  Bonnie Jo’s ‘master class’ was less an inspirational lecture than a warm challenging conversation among equals, all of us engaged in the ambitious and arduous task of laying great words down on the page in such a way as to move and hearten and enlighten readers.

Bonnie Jo (she’s a first name kind of woman; the honorific Ms. Campbell is too formal; it just doesn’t fit!) proved to be as down-to-earth as her best-known characters; at once humble and self-confident, generous, and passionately interested in everyone and everything around her.

She suggested, and I, for one, agree, that writing fiction is mysterious, one of the most mysterious of creative endeavors; that it’s impossible to pin down exactly how to make it work; to write a playbook that will guarantee success.  Amen to that, Bonnie Jo. 

To me, her most compelling piece of advice:  “Write from the specific knowledge that you have that nobody else has.”  Bonnie Jo, who grew up and still resides in Kalamazoo, has made her career doing this.  She grew up on a farm, learning how to milk cows and castrate pigs.  She rides, she runs, she rows.  She has traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus, hitchhiked across country, and organized cycling tours throughout Europe.  In other words, she has plenty of specific knowledge to use as material. 

She practices what she preaches, as proved by her new story collection. Here’s my review, published first at authorexposure.com:

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new collection of short stories, her third, is anything but a page-turner.  Readers who gobbled her 2012 novel, Once Upon a River, should, when opening Mothers, be warned to adjust their expectations.  For that novel’s main character, the orphaned sharp shooter Margo Crane, 16, kept readers in her grip from the moment she, after a sexual misadventure with an uncle, and the murder of her father, flees her home place in a canoe with a stolen rifle.

The varied and marvelous stories in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters are a different breed of narrative.  They ask for, no, demand, slow contemplative reading and rereading, and they reward this effort with their wisdom, wit and grace; the abiding wonders of their language as it pirouettes from the profane to the lyrical in a sentence or a paragraph. For example, Buckeye, who sells cotton candy, in “The Greatest Show On Earth, 1982:  What There Was,” feels more than she can think, “her hip in short shorts touching his hip, her body filled with desire, filled with more than desire, her body and heart and mind all full up with Mike from loving him on his bunk last night, ready to love him again despite the heat, despite Red showing up.”

Campbell made her reputation as a writer of ‘rural noir’ with her first novel, “Q Road,” and her acclaimed second story collection “American Salvage.”  By no means does she abandon the hard-working, lovelorn women that are her forte, or the troubled men who insist upon residing on the edges of their lives, but Mothers, Tell Your Daughters also stakes out new territory in such stories as “My Dog Roscoe,” “Natural Disasters,” “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom,” and “The Fruit of the Paw Paw Tree,” with their smart, well-educated sassy women, their narrative loops and switchbacks – you can’t ever tell exactly where they’re going or how they’ll get there.  Like the best stories of Alice Munro, these leave in the mind’s eye fascinating contrails that demand a second or third look – with a deeper understanding gleaned each time.

Mothers also offers fresh perspectives on familiar Campbellian characters. Sherry, the lonely put-upon mother in “Somewhere Warm,” at last achieves serenity when she realizes, “love was not something you created for the reward of it.  Loving was as natural for a good person as shining was for the sun, and the sun shone whether the plants appreciated it nor not.  Some people could return your love, and others could only absorb it, the way a black hole took in all the light and gave nothing back, but that didn’t diminish the shining.

Or Marika, the phlebotomist in Blood Work, 1999,” which moves toward magic as she comforts a horrifically burned teen-age ICU patient: “More gunshots or fireworks sounded in the distance.  As if switched on, the thing in her hand came to life, pushed back against her palm, pushed and swelled.  Even without money she could alleviate suffering, and maybe she could infuse with life that which seemed lifeless.”

The title story, sixth of the 16, serves as the fulcrum around which the other stories spin.  Simple in conception, brilliant in execution, Mother, Tell Your Daughters, offers the bitter sweet wisdom of a mother in hospice, one silenced by a stroke, longing to tell her more sophisticated and better-educated daughter everything she’s never told her before, spilling out for the reader a profound, life-shaping mother/daughter bond that was never soft or easy.  “…Pretty soon,” she warns, “I’ll be dead and you’ll wake up and realize you’ve got your fist clenched around nothing.”  P. 99.  This mother is a signature Campbell character, a rural woman confined by lack of education and near poverty, but impelled by her tremendous energy and an abiding love hunger. “I never had the luxury of looking back at you—I had to keep my eyes on the horizon to watch out for what was coming next,” she imagines telling Sis.  “You complain about the way I raised you children, but I only wanted to survive another day.”

Slowly, the story reckons with their multiple mutual betrayals, not one of which begins to fray their bond.  At last the mother, considering her daughter’s worldly achievements, thinks, “You should’ve had a daughter of your own.  That would’ve been a bone for you to chew on all your life.  I guarantee, though, you wouldn’t win any award for raising a daughter.”

These stories made me laugh and cry and several of them wrung me out. They offer rare  and provocative insights into how some women have to live, and what we, who don’t have to live like that, share with them anyway. Maybe, for Campbell, this is a transitional work, one foot in the past, the other stretching forward.  If so, I can’t wait to read what’s coming next.


Julia MacDonnell is the Nonfiction Editor of Philadelphia Stories and the author of Mimi Malloy, At Last!

Review: The Word of the Day by David Kertis

David Kertis begins his first full-length book of poems, The Word of the Day, by letting us in on his secret, that is, most of life is hidden, secret. His poem, Starlings, begins with an ordinary voice, a voice a reader might imagine is in black and white not color, or perhaps the voice of Everyman:

The day’s no longer bright, the sky

full of clouds moving in

from the mountains or the lake.

 

            Okay, we think, this is a common description, right?  But then Kertis tells us:

 

The light appears

to have no source.

 

The distant row of trees

is where the birds are hidden.

They burst out flying, fearing

my approach, all at once.

 

            Suddenly, this bucolic scene offers up more than we expected.  There is the mystery of the light with no source.  There are the hidden birds fearing him, the human being.  Now readers, we have entered his signature lyricism intertwined with the narrative. 

 

In his poem, Adult Books, Kertis begins, once again, with the ordinary:

 

The first book I had

that was made for adults

was a field manual, a bird book

small enough for my hands.

 

            Okay reader, we all had a first book, right? 

            And what child hasn’t been bored, as the lines below suggest?

 

            But note his choice of line break at “and” and the next two lines “by the dark/ reading of scripture.”  Kertis is not going to shout out his intent, so listen carefully to how he breaks his lines and walks you through his world.  

 

I brought along the book

when my grandmother

took me to church.  I thumbed it quietly

in the pew, bored by the music and

by the dark

reading of scripture.

           

             Then Kertis makes his signature shift, moving ever so slightly from the ordinary, the most ordinary moment, into his obsessions—

the delicacy of humans, the delicacy of everything in this world of ours, the secrets it holds that he is resigned never to know.  And time.  …a lifetime to drift/ and nearly to fly…

 

Birds are not

the right way to think of souls.

My soul that they spoke of

in church, I knew was smoke,

                        or the air rising

and warming as it left the damp

earth, to take a lifetime to drift

and nearly to fly,

scattered

upwards over the earth.

 

            Kertis tells us in his poem, Elegy: The ash trees were planted/ to last a lifetime by the side door/and you were there longer.  Later in this poem: Cold windows showed the sky outside—/ it seemed/ as everlasting as the blue in a book of hours. 

            In spite of time’s obstinate procession, Kertis ends this poem with modest optimism that seeps through all of work.

 

            Small windows, but we knew the rooms

            were filled with lights you always left on,

            like the sparrows out there somewhere

            in the dark, all heart wrapped in feathers

            and kept warm.

 

            Kertis’s poems do suggest he is both outside of the world and inside, simultaneously.  The consummate outsider and the man who wants to live fully, embracing his world.  His poems are like great photographs, and he, a photographer.  In his poem, Vocals, he begins:

 

The city is made out of voices

I live there

in a half-furnished room

but I’m not anonymous.

I’m part of the babble but what I utter

might be called song.

 

            Yes, these remarkable poems are songs, the kind we hum to without thinking.  The good news is that Kertis’s work is no longer a secret. 

The Word of the Day by David Kertis, Winner of the Second Joie DeVivre Book Award Sponsored by Mad Poets Review

 

Publisher: Infinity Press 2015

ISBN 978-1-4958-0698-8