Review of Nathan Alling Long’s The Origin of Doubt

The Origin of Doubt, Nathan Alling Long’s glorious debut collection of short fictions, is dedicated ‘to those who don’t quite fit in.’ Its fifty stories, some no more than a paragraph long, could serve as a missal for a vast congregation of outcasts and wanderers; angst-ridden adolescents, erotic explorers, and philosophical self-searchers.

These stories – most would be called flash fiction due to their brevity and obsession with ‘moments’ of experience – offer highly nuanced meditations on sexual awakening and its confusions, eternal parent/child conflicts, sibling connections and their opposite, romantic love and its impossibilities — and Long’s stunning imagery weaves them into a radiant mosaic. For The Origin of Doubt is, above all, a contemporary mosaic, a post-modern one, spangled with a pure and at times enthralling take on same sex love and its hetero counterpart, not to mention several other life and death matters.  Its protagonists, passionate and yearning, are so profoundly ‘there’ in their fictive worlds, be they Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, young seekers in a Thai monastery, or any of a score of other possibilities, that they pull the reader in close for an embrace, or, at times, a death grip.  Like all of the best fiction, Long’s stories takes readers places they never planned to go, and surprise them with the unforeseen pleasures to be had after their arrival.

Taro, one of the longer stories, examines the deep connection and subsequent disconnection of two brothers. During childhood, they fight, they wrestle, an endless competition, and Taro, the older, always wins.  One day, the family is moving, and the boys, in a joke played by the movers, end up rolled up together in a Persian carpet, a dark and airless space where, the narrator says, he’d be happy to die.  “I felt myself pressing, not down into the earth, but up against the weight of his body, to feel it more.  …this was all I wanted – not to be him, but to be against him, just as we were.”

It is said that flash fiction suits perfectly an age of short attention spans; readers who long for a quick hit and then move on to their next diversion. Long’s work may undermine that belief if only because his stories, intense and sensual, demand repeated reading.  Like prayers, they trigger reflection, and the desire to go back again through the words.  With repetition, these stories offer up more of their gifts.  Some, like When My Mother Died, might be called prose poems.  In it, the genderless narrator says,  “A thousand bottles of red wine flowed across the living room floor, and I felt the miscarriage begin, of the child I’d been carrying my entire life.” Others, such as Jealousy, Buried, Sweeping, and How to Bury Your Dog, might be considered parables. Whatever genre basket they’re dropped into – Long’s work defies them all – their impact far outweighs their word count

Long’s characters, sometimes named but often not, share the burden of being alive in a splendid but confounding world, a world in which urgent questions go unanswered, but experience itself creates an irresistible thrum.  Many remain spiritual long after they have fallen away from an organized religion. In this world, love is, more often than not,  “peculiar and unchained- like a neglected yard dog.  It can bite you more than once.  It can bite you in different places.” It’s a world in which summer buzzes ‘like neon,’ the moon sneaks in over sleeping faces ‘the way a moth might glide across your arm,’ the earth can be ‘wet as a tongue,’ and ‘conversation surfaces once in a while, like a whale coming up for air, then disappears.’  

The collection, published by the venerable Press 53 of Winston-Salem, is divided into three sections, The Origin of Doubt, A House Divided and The Fortunate.  Read in order, these sections create an arc of a storyteller’s coming of age. But because the storyteller is a shape-shifter with many guises, and the stories are told in many styles and from many points of view, the arc reveals itself only gradually.  In an early story, Between, a befuddled young boy visits his father in prison and asks him about the word ‘conviction,’ a query the father answers but not in the way the boy had hoped for.  “Before the next month was up, I would forget his face, forget almost, that he was my father.” In the collection’s penultimate story, Sweeping, the narrator opines, “My life is not without purpose…We sweep each day, that the world may be – not clean exactly, never clean – but cleaner: And that is enough. 

Yet The Origin of Doubt, doesn’t require orderly reading.  You can open the book on any page and be certain to find a reward: a puzzle, a provocation, a delight, a question asked but left unanswered. Long, a professor at Stockton University in Galloway Township, N.J., has said these stories were culled from about 15 years of his writing.  All but two have been published in such publications as Atticus, Clackamas, Indiana Review, Story Quarterly, Fringe and Salt Hill.  Gathered together, they generate a synergy of themes, and their heft promises more compelling work to come from Long.  In Portraits of a Woman the omniscient narrator reflects “…she knows this character is from another century, as no one, these days, looks out a window for quite so long, considers their life so seriously, so existentially, as she is now.”  This expresses – however ironically, given The Origin of Doubt’s contemporary concerns – the depth and significance of this beautifully wrought and generous book.

 

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Here is an excerpt, a complete story:

 

Fireflies 

At nineteen, he loved Michael who’d made them two flashlights that blinked in a specific pattern, like fireflies.  “So we can find each other in the dark,” Michael had said.

But they’d since broken up.  Years had passed.  They moved to different cities, in different states.  He became a teacher, Michael a pilot.

Still, on nights when planes flew overhead, he turned the flashlight on and pointed it at the sky.


 

Emily Rose Cole, Love & a Loaded Gun (Minerva Rising Press, 2017)

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Rodman’s Hollow by Murray Brandon

Emily Rose Cole won the 2014 Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry for the poem “Self-Portrait as Rapunzel,” selected by judge Jeffrey Ethan Lee. Her poem considers the relationship between Rapunzel and her mother and how a person accepts or rejects various aspects of abuse or isolation because of the attention or even affection that might accompany them. The poem, included in her new chapbook as “Rapunzel Learns to Build,” is startling and delicate, but with a deep resolve and grit at its core. Cole’s Love & a Loaded Gun approaches many familiar characters in unfamiliar states of resignation and agitation. These poems force the reader to reevaluate expectations and assumptions about the figures we like to think we know.

 

While the premise of the collection suggests Anne Sexton’s Transformations, the figures treated throughout the collection come from all manner of sources; only Rapunzel is shared among the Grimms, Sexton, and Cole. The remainder of the poems concern figures from myth and fable, but also comic books, film, and video games — media that are literally two dimensional in their presentation of characters. Flat characters in our shared stories allow audiences to tailor characters to best speak to or for themselves. Here, Emily Rose Cole shows us what she has brought of herself to these characters: wit, rage, and tensile strength.

 

A shared quality in many of these poems is the characters’ emergence from a few significant male shadows: those of King Arthur, Clyde Barrow, Superman, Zeus, or Mario (the video game plumber). No longer diminished by their male counterparts, Cole’s speakers often express anger at, awareness of, or frustration with their situations — and the men that accompany or abandon them. Tellingly, the collection is dedicated to “every… woman who’s ever been made to keep her mouth shut.” We cannot ignore these long-silent voices, Cole tells us again and again.

 

These poems reveal secrets about the characters that sometimes illuminate and sometimes complicate their sources — often the poems do both. The title of the collection comes from the final poem, “Black Widow Explains.” In it, Natasha Romanoff shares her history and shrugs off any interest the reader has in her work. She tells us that there is no real trick: “It’s not hard to be a spy. All women are made of muscle / and trauma.” The speaker tells the reader how to use sexuality to subvert and exploit expectations. Her offhanded manner suggests that her work exists on a continuum that most women find themselves on at various points for various reasons.

 

Cole reminds us that women often approach challenges differently from men. In her poem, “Your Princess Leaves the Castle,” Mario’s damsel in distress, Princess Peach vents:

 

For years you’ve solved every problem

by stepping on it. It’s simple for you: pulverize

the henchmen, emasculate the boss, watch me

swoon. Well, joke’s on you, Mario. I quit.

 

Lois Lane and Guinevere reveal bedroom secrets that show their somewhat magical or alien lovers as more human than not. Leda, after being raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, decides to leave town and “pursue a new hobby: take a shotgun / to the edge of a lake and shoot at every shadow of wings.” The anger and frustration these characters express, being beholden to predictable too-familiar men, is felt throughout the collection.

 

Though we may have originally found these characters supporting more familiar figures in stories, they have a great deal to say for themselves. They finally defy and emerge from the flatness of the page or screen to speak. Emily Rose Cole recognizes how important the teller of the story can be, and in Love & a Loaded Gun, she brings her own savvy gusto to these compelling voices. In providing such deep interiors for these characters, she forces the reader to look around at other stories and the other characters not examined here. How many flat, unconsidered female characters still have stories to share?

Dawn Manning Packs a Subtle Punch in Postcards from the Dead Letter Office

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Stormy Village by Daisy Cohen

Philadelphia poet Dawn Manning brings a historic influence to her writing in Postcards from the Dead Letter Office, using a form of Japanese lyric poetry called the Tanka to create quick, hard-hitting poems that float on the tongue and leave lasting images on small pieces of page. In an engrossing debut, Manning weaves snippets of time and space into beautiful encounters with people, places, and experiences.

Nothing appears to be more than what it is, yet each poem contains multitudes more than what it first suggests. In [spring tanka], ideas of the season encompass rebirth and cleaning house, simply enough at first with the image of a newborn child (“the husks / of their eyes must split open / to pull in the world”) then more deeply (“spring winds sweep goslings / like loose lint / from under their mother’s downy skirt – I only / throw out most of your old things”); and in a beat the reader is pulled from the clear surface to the foggy, deeper meaning within, swept gently enough to make the discovery an inviting and mysterious part of the poem.

Manning continues this theme of subtle, powerful imagery through Oranges in Winter, where the thoughtful description of fruit so elegantly gives way to the silent destruction of two people that it hits us right in the chest: “and we carry bitterness / in our skins like the Clementines / we peel together, carefully / pulling up the veins / with the rind.” The quiet thoughtfulness of each poem before and after this one leaves the reader with something to consider long after they’ve closed the book.

From a simple observation of everyday Venice life in [Venetian tanka] (“pastel laundry / strung between windowsills / prayer flags and flypaper / for photographers / on the tourist’s pilgrimage), to the innocent discovery of a deceased cat by a group of children out for a bike ride in Hit, Run (“We keep vigil from our bicycles / as life scurries back into the cat, / ant by ant.”), Dawn Manning manages to dig deeper into the seemingly monotone ways we are connected to bring the reader the discovery of something that may just have them pausing an extra moment to soak in the world.

 

Oil and Candle by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague (2016, Timeless, Infinite Light)

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And The Music Flowed Through Her by Arvid Bloom

Gabriel Ojeda-Sague’s Jazzercise Is a Language is forthcoming from The Operating System in 2018.

In his debut collection Oil and Candle, Gabriel Ojeda-Sague writes, “if you must have the blood, you must also take my plantain chips and my unfortunate life.” The vulnerability and rawness the audience demands of the speaker must also be accompanied by wholeness — a self complete with all its various facets: glittering and good, but desperate and frustrated too.

Ojeda-Sague grabs what is unflattering and holds it up to the light for closer examination. In some instances he zooms in on the link between otherness and the body, probing traditions of metaphorical cleansing and actual cleanliness: “I think of the / women dipping themselves into / tubs full of / prescribed cleansing / getting the toxins out of their body /  and into their panties / and putting their panties where they know they won’t see them again …”

He tugs at the tangled threads of the power of ritual and its inevitable commodification in capitalist America. “As I hear about the 17th killing I am very anxious about the ability of a ½ oz bottle to cleanse the network so I think I have really failed this time.” He delves into the inner workings of Santeria: the abrecaminos candles and the prayers, the headless chickens and the sage smudging. He doesn’t simply ask questions but dares to challenge this latticework of beliefs. “I wonder if there is a ritual to stop killing and I think there is not.”

When the speaker of Oil and Candle continually opts in and out of such complex systems, it is for reasons tangible and understandable: “my abuela brought us / up Catholic and I stopped / believing in that when / prayers didn’t turn / my friend gay and / didn’t stop anybody’s / cancer in my family / of which there is a lot.” If an abrecaminos candle seemed to get you “a few gigs,” you may naturally want to continue using it. And when its manufacturers instruct you to just trash it when you were expecting a more dignified disposal, you may have some questions. How big is this faith? Is it not worthy of ceremony? Does it have the capacity to protect? Is this candle even recyclable?

Gabriel Ojeda-Sague’s Oil and Candle reminds us that sometimes we walk with our beliefs on wobbly ground. But we are given permission to set up camp on the fence, to straddle tradition and abandon, to feel satisfied from a ritual but ultimately deem another one “useless.” Oil and Candle is a critical embrace of the poetry scene, inherited traditions, messy identities and the mess of life itself.

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

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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)

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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

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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.