Thursday, February 28, 2008

Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films by Wayne Koestenbaum

Turtle Point Press, 2006
Reviewed by Lisa Bower

Wayne Koestenbaum’s poetry collection, Best-selling Jewish Porn Films, is as irreverent and in-your-face as the title suggests. Each poem in this collection is trim and snappy; each joke or pun seems selected with care, and articles are as rare as autobiographical shtick. Pop culture and sex are common subject matters, and in the midst of Koestenbaum’s ironic pairings, there is beautiful music.

Koestenbaum’s poems include subject matter as diverse as Plato, Judaism, and “John Wayne’s Perfumes.” These are not poems told in traditional narratives. Instead, Koestenbaum allows his poems to explore many avenues; he pairs what may seem unpairable or unrelated. For instance, in the poem “In This Vale Of Tears We Call Existence,,” he writes, “in this Shorty I call Julia Child / in this cute seminarian I call blow job / in this lamplit hair salon I call brutality in South Boston / in this Catwoman I call interpretation / in this Washington D.C. I call laugh and clap your hands.” Pop culture, place, sex, and politics all make an appearance in this stanza of the poem. This poet’s world is a diverse place; the reader has to be ready and able to leap around subject matter. Ultimately, the pairings in these poems are one of the main points of the collection: life’s collisions are often strange, if only we’d open our eyes and ask if “Crisco is kosher.”

Koestenbaum is conscious of the reader’s desire to understand, and the way many readers assume poetry is autobiographical. In the sixth section of the poem, “Pierrot Lunaire,” Koestenbaum hints at the readers need or want to know or understand a piece of writing in regards to the writer’s personality. He writes:

      I ask if her novel is veiled autobiography
      afraid this interpretation won’t please her
      so far I see on her face no signs irreversibly saturnine
      in the dream I tell her I’m writing poems tangentially touched by
      sitting beside Susan Sontag at a dinner party, an elliptical table

Here, perhaps like the reader who looks to link Koestenbaum’s life to his poems, the speaker beseeches the famous critic and writer about the “veiled autobiography” in her pieces. What makes is snarky or even ironic is that fact that Sontag is a critic, a genre ruled by expectations other than personal truth. Here, Koestenbaum alludes to the fact that poetry doesn’t have to automatically equate with “autobiography” or traditional ideas of truth.

The collection uses repetition to not only link what one might think unthinkable, but to create new meanings for its subjects. Koestenbaum’s is aware of how people create meaning, whether it’s through cultural icons or through politics and metaphor. In the title poem, he writes:

      Fallen Jewish Angel
      The Isle of Jewish Men
      Jewish Oral Exam
      The Jewish Pizza Boy: He Delivers

      Three Jewish Brothers
      Jewish Room Service
      Jewish Sexual Healing
      Jews Beg for Mercy

Ultimately, this poem operates on a number of levels. Of course, we have Koestenbaum’s tongue-in-cheek humor. However, behind the raunchy language and context of the poem, there is also the levity of such lines as “Jews Beg for Mercy.” In this poem, religion, ethnicity, sex, and “the fallen,” collide. Koestenbaum is not afraid to offend, and he is not afraid to tackle the world and its culture. The repetition in his poems results in a meditative state. In other pieces that use repetition, figures like Judy Garland and John Wayne become the icons of Koestenbaum’s prayers.

Though trim and sly, these poems feature some beautiful and complex lyricism. Koestenbaum’s poem, “Crevice,” is tuned to collision’s music. He writes how, “I can’t tell apart / human beings and lawn ornaments. / More, later, about my vast holdings.” Here, we have the same strange pairings, but we also have a heightened layering of sound: consonants echo and vowels flirt within and between lines.

Ironically, though the poems are flippant and snarky, their tone and openness of subject matter make it seem as if Koestenbaum is shooting the breeze with the reader. The world is often full of strange pairings, strange occurrences, trauma, and humor. Koestenbaum’s singing and laughing as he experiences the world; his collection is truly, as one poem states, an “elegy for everyone.”


Wayne Koestenbaum is the author of five collection of poems; a novel, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, and five books of nonfiction: Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration; The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire; Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon; Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics; and Andy Warhol. Recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award and nominee for a National Book Critics Circle Award, Koestenbaum is currently a professor at the CUNY graduate school.


Lisa Bower's poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming from such places as Mid-American Review, The Southern Review, Jacket, Rattle, The Hollins Critic, and The Mississippi Review. Though she has an MFA (golf clap), she's not poor or working for "the man." She thinks the starving artist stereotype is so 1992.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Loveliest Grotesque by Sandra Lim

Kore Press, 2007
Reviewed by Karen Rigby

One of Sandra Lim’s great strengths is the ability to intrigue the reader with energetic word play. The poems in this debut demonstrate a willingness to experiment with forms ranging from pantoums to prose poems, to use nouns as verbs, as in the line “I carrot them with caramels” (p. 55), to borrow French phrases, to rhyme, and to surprise us with assertions: “I’m a bandit gripping / hard on the steal” (p.19).

Domestic images including a pineapple-shaped cutting board, pins, a hot iron, and a garlic press are equally at home with references to Wittgenstein, Ahkmatova, Bovary, Pépé Le Pew and classic Hollywood stars. These are the poems of a mind traversing a rich landscape in search of that boundary between the self and the world.

The three chapters in the book are loosely linked by recurring mentions of the sea. In the opening poem, we find “the little ruin” “sang me songs of seafaring”, as though the speaker were beguiled. In the second chapter, the poem titled “The Sea, The Sea” reveals the speaker’s attraction to and fear of the sea’s power. Later, in “Sailor, Your Sonnet”, Lim writes “In a dry season, they’ve dipped me gently into the sea.” The line reads as both burial and baptism. By the time we reach the final line in the book’s last poem—“each time I find I murmur, so this is the sea.”—the sea as a metaphor becomes an exhalation. We sense an acceptance of the journey on the speaker’s end, even if we’re not always completely certain what the touchstones we’ve encountered along the way meant.

The poet seems aware of this occasional tendency to keep the reader at a distance, however, and expresses it best in the closing lines to the poem “Wish You Were Here” (p. 48): “The language never flies straight to the meaning, but in the / meantime the sunsets here are quite resplendent.” One is reminded of poets like Larissa Szporluk—Lim also writes intelligent, wholly original poems with a lexicon of their own. The work invites multiple readings for readers willing to be challenged, but there are times when thoughtful ambiguity forays into more abstract territory:

      X points to a bruise. Look
      at me.

      And now, something
      is hiving within.

      You turn to X
      like a big thought,

      like an offer of all immoderacy.
      So this is the new world.

      X says seeing is believing. You think
      on counter-illuminations. Seeing being innocence.

      You stick your fingers where your eyes
      used to be.

      “Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions” (p. 17)

The poem hinges on the wit of the final lines—sticking one’s fingers where the eyes used to be is the end of innocence, a direct refusal of X’s comment that “seeing is believing”. The phrase may refer back to the bruise. Perhaps X is willing the speaker to acknowledge the particular pain the bruise represents. The ending is also a nod towards the title—one’s actions can be inconsistent with one’s beliefs. But X could be nearly anyone. Though it may not be crucial to the overall poem to know much about X, the poem stands out as a departure from the poet’s usual specificity, using generalized concepts: something, big thought, immoderacy, and new world. Indeed, these minor lapses are only evident when contrasted with the precise choices made elsewhere, as in these lines from “Something, Something, Something Grand” (p. 19):

      your body is a mouth, is a night of travel, your body
      is tripling the sideways insouciance. The muscle in you
      knows gorgeous, in you knows tornadoes.
      In an instant’s compass, your blood flees you like a cry.

Lim is at her best in the prose poems included here, particularly in “A Village Journal” (p.13), where lovers, suicides, memory, and “ a procession of cold data fed like a wick through sleep” create a history . The larger canvas provided by the prose poem allows for greater flexibility, reflection, discursiveness, and questioning—tools used to create an engaging voice that remains consistent without veering into nostalgia.

The most memorable poems in this collection make you wish you’d written them yourself, and glad that someone else has. “Loveliest Grotesque”, written in one breathless and breathtaking sentence, is tinged with insouciant charm, a sharp sense for the poetic line, and an underlying darkness. It exemplifies why we should look forward to more work from this author:

      Loveliest Grotesque

      I kept the little ruin near me, I stowed it in the kitchen,
      it sat in the pantry, like a jar of reddest jam,
      it sang me songs of seafaring, it said the "weather being fine,"
      I listened to it breathe, shiver brokenly in time,
      I believed a multitude stood between us, four seasons,
      the meaningless physical world, and a grammar primer,
      you could see how I found it necessary,
      with its immodest appeals, its constant state of déshabillé,
      it is small for its age, it is too wide-awake,
      so my sewing came undone with the years,
      I stalked myself to the open door, the unlatched gate,
      ma petite is a world sold of charms, it loves a new act,
      has a leer for a mouth, has indecorous energy,
      I ran from the spring glee of it, I radioed ahead,
      oh I unplanned a lifetime, turned my gaze to the west,
      but then it said it would make something of us both,
      the sound of it touched me, fat in its cracked sadness,
      it was homemade all along, it was oddly necessary,
      I looked back like Lot's wife, like the exhausted mirage
      that I was, and the loveliest salt taste was whelming us,
      both awash in a light of knives, and the wind it was shifting like this—


Sandra Lim was born in Seoul, Korea and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She attended Stanford University, and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her poems have appeared in several literary journals including Gulf Coast, Colorado Review, American Letters & Commentary, Denver Quarterly, and ZYZZYVA. She lives in San Francisco.


Karen Rigby received a 2007 literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her second chapbook, Savage Machinery, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her site is

Monday, February 11, 2008

Rift by Forrest Hamer

Four Way Books, 2007

Reviewed by Helen Losse

In his third volume of poems, Forrest Hamer has written a book about a world of uncertainty. He begins with I don’t know what kind of man I am (“Reconciliation”) and I don’t know what to believe, sometimes (“My Personal Epistemology”) and searches in the “Someone I know” poems—eight of them are in the book (in three of four sections)—for meaning in story: the proof of an idea about the world lies/ in the world of the personal (“My Personal Epistemology”). If the “Someone I know” poems are about image (in tidbits of narrative), the poems between them clarify: Let’s say the self is a story (“Ninety-five, a Hundred”). Sometimes a story that turns on itself and becomes another image, another matter to ponder.

Hamer’s subject matter varies: childhood memories, violence, confusion—How could we be right and they be right? (“Between”)—and doubt—a black hole (“What Happened”), longing and loss of innocence, aching and reaching. Fires whirr in dervishes below us (“Diaspora”). An elderly aunt has become impossible (“Some Sugar”). People alienate themselves in the search for unity; sometimes they need more than lessons because they are lost.

Like the idea there
is no idea
no before and no later
no death
and not now

Like the drive back down
and the heavy heat
You were not just there (“Lost”)

Then Hamer says, I was falling and falling into a voice, and . . . I spoke back. (“Letter From Cuba”). There are thoughts of suicide. Thoughts, not actions. And the exploration of sex by a woman late in her eighties and the others at “Assisted Living (Goldsboro Narrative #44).” “Someone I know . . . thinks I failed at writing him down.” Like any poet doesn’t.

The poet knows every reader wants a story. But in the final section, “The Point of the Story,” Hamer reminds us of “someone” who has no real interest in imagination, is confused by everyday niceness (“Someone I know" / [Some of us have to live with being mean]”) and others who are humble. By all there was we had not seen/By all there was we had (“The Conquest”).

Rift is a book of stories that does not end with hopefulness, but with There’s some other story to tell (“Conference”). Hamer is a keen observer, not a teller of all things true. After all, stories are certain; their meaning is not. Rift is a book that begs to be read again and again, for in seeking reconciliation, we must notice the rift. And the more the stories differ, the more they appear the same.


Forrest Hamer is the author of Call & Response (Alice James, 1995), which received the Beatrice Hawley Award, and Middle Ear (Roundhouse, 2000), which received the Northern California Book Award. He is an Oakland, California, psychologist and affiliate member of the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute and Society. His poetry has appeared in many journals, and has been anthologized in Poet’s Choice: Poems for Everyday Life, The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place, Making Callaloo: 25 Years of Black Literature, Blues Poems, and the 1994 and 2000 editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the California Arts Council, and he has taught on the poetry faculty of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops.


Helen Losse is a poet, free lance writer, and Poetry Editor of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Her recent poetry publications include Southern Hum, Adagio Verse Quarterly, The Centrifugal Eye, Ann Arbor Review, Lily, and Blue Fifth Review. She has two chapbooks, Gathering the Broken Pieces, available from FootHills Publishing and Paper Snowflakes, available from Southern Hum Press.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

NOW AVAILABLE: CutBank 68, Winter 2008

fiction by Dennis McFadden, Jenna Williams, Max Everhart, Baird Harper, Adam Peterson, Jeff Chapman, Syd Harriet

poetry by Tomaz Salamun, Matt Hart, Keetje Kuipers, Avery Slater, Ed Skoog, CJ Evans, Katie Peterson

art by Andy Smetanka

featuring critical reviews: Trina Burke on Tony Tost, Karyna McGlynn on Chelsey Minnis, Laurie White on Paul Hoover

Copies are available here.