Thursday, April 17, 2008
BlazeVOX [books], 2007
Reviewed by Brandi Homan
The title poem from Amy King’s I’m The Man Who Loves You serves as an example of one of King’s true strengths: her confidence. She says:
I began this day by celebrating the hour of my conception
and a simultaneous abandonment of complete non-existence; (34)
Such self-confidence is evident throughout the rest of the work as well, but let’s be clear that it is not arrogance, either unearned or earned—it’s exuberance. King has an unabashed willingness to abandon “non-existence,” to claim her space in the world. “She won’t adhere / to personal space. / She won’t appear / as a potted plant” (71).
As we continue to wade through the aftermath resulting from Chicago Review’s recent articles questioning the nature of the relationship between gender and (especially “experimental” or “avant-garde”) poetry, King’s desire to dive in and both embrace and upend traditional gender roles is refreshing. She continues:
I put on my long black dream and stepped into the world of women
to live among my female brothers who know how to grow
up on ink that occasionally vanishes & candles that eat at the wick;
The choice of the phrase “female brothers” presents readers with a quandary—Is King intentionally playing with the notion that feminism has been accused of trying to give women “masculine” traits in order to ascertain status? Why not “sisters”? Or is she self-consciously attempting to feminize male writers by assigning their fraternity the “female” title? Instead, the compounding of the two words draws attention to the ever-confusing, and ultimately failing, terminology surrounding gender roles, here specifically among artists.
As much as King, throughout, urges us (and in the previous quote, women writers in particular) to step forward and accept our lives and ourselves, she does so in a way that is disarmingly inclusive, reminding us to “Be small, o person” (74). She looks at our species with a beneficent eye, saying “…it’s amazing how children never quite come to resemble / their grown-up-middle-aged bodies” (64). While these lines could be interpreted as simply name-calling (adults behaving like children), the phrasing suggests that we are, at our most basic, children who should be looked upon with kindness stemming from that very fact—much like how we view our own children. Not that this tendency toward compassion is surprising from King, consider the community-building work that she does with the well-recognized online journal, MiPOesias.
Yet King is not naïve about the relentless potential for expanse (resulting from both human nature and the advent of the digital age) and cruelty that lies between humans in contemporary society:
… The smallest story of two people coming
Together imitates a circus tent in winter holding
Everyone beneath it. (15)
Here, King is acknowledging the “infinite distances” between even the closest people that Rilke has referred to, continuing on elsewhere to complicate the shakiness of relationships further by bringing in that which has the utmost potential for disembodiment: technology.
In his book Some Ether, Nick Flynn refers to the term “Angelization” (coined by Marshall McLuhan), which Flynn describes as “the process / by which any technology disembodies us.” King addresses this erosion several times throughout I’m The Man Who Loves You, compiling examples of answering machines, cables, hybrid vehicles, and digital photos, as in the following:
…I’m attaching a computer-shot photograph
so you know what I mean or can at least see
a pixilated version of my face as it thinks
your name… (77)
King brings the two ideas together—the instability of our relations with one another resulting from nature as well as technology—in phrases like:
…Someone should study
The extracting power one has with another: only everything’s
A signal when you turn your radar on. (15)
I’m The Man Who Loves You is just such a study, with just such a predicament. With so much happening so fast, so often, in today’s society, how are we to determine which signals ultimately have meaning?
King’s underlying compassion does not, however, keep her from being sharp-nosed about the state of the world and our country. In a book filled with highly charged, subversive political commentary, she knows what we’re up against:
is this for—what is it: days of finger clipping,
an elbow of personal risk to maintain state-wide
funding, and a gun using things
you love against you. (56)
But King’s promotion of self and species—plus her slant toward the political—are big-picture issues, and I’m The Man Who Loves You provides many more concrete lyrical pleasures. The book is varied, from often startling word choices to the different lengths/styles/subjects King employs. I’m The Man Who Loves You is organized alphabetically, which is potentially a risk; however, because the work itself takes so many risks, leaps, this choice seems congruent with the scope of her project.
Juxtaposed with outlandish detail, her declarative, assertive moments work well, keeping the poems from being too tongue-in-cheek or abstract. Similarly, moments of mini-narrative help keep readers grounded. Her blunt, apt titles are thoroughly enjoyable (a few favorites being “I’ve Only Got One of Me in Here” and “Yes, You”). She also frequently plays with sound, as evidenced by these lines from “On the Way to Dinner, An Objective Remark Written Down,” combining sibilance, alliteration, and assonance into a veritable aural bouquet:
…A cunning clay
can, a little pan, red devil hot pulp kiss and then the gin’s
sheen lipped across your streaming teeth slips back lick. (53)
Even though King does something that there should be more of in contemporary poetry—addresses the sociopolitical aspects of life in the 21st century head on—I’m The Man Who Loves You accomplishes much more. It is disjointed, beautifully grotesque, and unsparing, yet it is ultimately hopeful, kind, and entertaining. In “I Used to Be Amy King,” King says, “…we are bred to be the best neglected fun, forthcoming” (32). Believe you me, King is this type of fun. I’m The Man Who Loves You is not to be neglected. This book is for anyone who has ever stepped into, or wanted to step into, their own “long black dream.”
Amy King is the author of I’m The Man Who Loves You and Antidotes for an Alibi, both from Blazevox Books, The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Press), and most recently, Kiss Me With the Mouth of Your Country (Dusie Press). She is the editor of the Poetics List, sponsored by The Electronic Poetry Center (SUNY-Buffalo/University of Pennsylvania) and teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College. Her poems have been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, and she has been the recipient of a MacArthur Scholarship for Poetry. Amy King was also the 2007 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere. She is currently editing an anthology, The Urban Poetic, forthcoming from Factory School.
Brandi Homan is the author of Hard Reds, forthcoming from Shearsman Books in September, and Two Kinds of Arson, a chapbook from dancing girl press. She is editor-in-chief of Switchback Books.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Burnside Review Press, 2007
Reviewed by Kristina Marie Darling
In Leslie Jamison’s The Wintering Barn, Napoleon’s army collides head-on with savants, scholars, and the Pasha of Egypt, setting the stage for a quirky, unpredictable chapbook of fiction. Depicting the journey of Etienne, a researcher who specializes in animals, as he accompanies the French army on a military campaign, Jamison’s work delves into provocative subjects – of which prostitution, infidelity, and the excesses of European royalty are merely a few examples – while remaining lyrical and lighthearted throughout. Combining the metaphors of a finely crafted poem with intriguing characters and an unmistakable narrative voice, The Wintering Barn presents an engaging portrait of Etienne, dazzling readers with exotic locales and evocative images all the while.
In depicting the protagonist’s journey, Leslie Jamison’s use of recurring images to structure the chapbook is impressive. Divided into several episodes, each taking place in a different time and place, these sections are gracefully woven together through repeated descriptions of giraffes, albeit in different contexts. Stating early in the chapbook that Etienne’s love interest, Claude, had recently purchased a giraffe in Egypt, Jamison writes: “He turned over the receipt to show an animal whose edges were furry where the ink had smeared. It looked like a horse whose neck had been pulled like taffy. It was stretched next to a tree. They were the same size. I tried to imagine the corpse I had seen in the desert – what would it have looked like alive, standing on four crooked legs?”(5). Reappearing in Marseilles, again in Egypt, and at the end of the chapbook, such descriptions often serve as links between scenes, settings, and characters. Structured more poetically than a typical short story, The Wintering Barn is subtle and innovative in its use of imagery to forge connections between plot elements.
The structure of the chapbook works well with the repeated themes and motifs in the text, which often deal with romances that could have blossomed had circumstances been different. Ranging from Etienne’s love for Claude to Claude’s failed marriage, these unfulfilled relationships are depicted across several different times and places, linked by common imagery that shifts with the plot of the chapbook. Jamison writes, for example: “I think of Claude: asking questions about the color of the sky, dipping slick plums in sugar, clutching that receipt in the midst of awful dreams. He never met the animal he bought. Maybe it never existed. Paint me next to it, he might have said. To show the height”(17). Depicting the unexplored possibility of Etienne’s relationship with Claude alongside the dream of a spectacular pet giraffe that never materialized, Jamison’s imagery unites plot elements while further illuminating them. Suggesting that, like the exotic animal that Claude never met, his relationship with Etienne remains both majestic and impossible, Jamison’s shifting images and fragmented text render familiar themes both relatable and suddenly strange.
The Wintering Barn is an enigmatic, intelligent read. Anyone who enjoys fiction that is quirky and lyrical throughout will be missing out if they don’t add Leslie Jamison’s chapbook to their collection. Five stars.
Leslie Jamison has recently published work in A Public Space, Tin House, Black Warrior Review and Best New American Voices 2008. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of four chapbooks, including Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006) and The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006). A Pushcart Prize nominee in 2006, her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Janus Head, Rattle, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Rain Taxi, The Adirondack Review, The Main Street Rag, The Mid-American Review, Jacket, Redactions: Poetry and Poetics, and other journals. Recent awards include residencies from the Centrum Foundation and the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts.
Thursday, April 03, 2008
Pearl Editions, 2007
Reviewed by Sea S. Perez
This big fake world, Ada Limón’s second book and winner of the Pearl Poetry Prize, begins with a hypothesis:
If this place that we live in includes
the kid with the chemicals and the lot
of old boats and carpet squares covered
with a sea of rocks from any given river,
wouldn’t two people deserve to meet here,
somewhere down the street before the light
turns green, or before their hearts explode
from one dumb tragedy or another. (1)
Limón’s “story in verse” proves that a woman at the hardware store, a man in the grey suit (our hero), and our hero’s friend, Lewis (the drunk), can remind us “that we have all come out of basic need, / some gnawing thing, some hunger” (1).
The narrative revolves around our hero, a traveling businessman in an unsatisfying marriage. What separates this big fake world from most stories of middle class dystopia is Limón’s unique way of crafting the inner life of her characters:
His wife said, “If you were a movie star,
you’d be Mark Harmon.”
He got up then, left the door open
and walked down toward the river.
Mark Harmon wasn’t really
a movie star—and she knew it.
He felt safe among the warehouses
with all their “wares” so useful.
One warehouse said IDEAL FIRE
in the color of wheelbarrow rust.
He thought it was strange
that what they made were fire
extinguishers. The “ideal fire”
being the fire one could easily put out. (14)
Our hero, to escape his passionless marriage, becomes infatuated by the hardware store woman and expresses this passion by buying nails from her. His garage fills will every kind of nail, yet he has “nothing to fix, but maybe himself.” He even begins a note to his wife (which he later crumbles) that began: “[b]eing I have so many nails, I wish to be useful to someone” (51).
That someone, ironically, is the hardware store lady, who shares our hero’s sense of loneliness and alienation. In “A Particular Fast Food and Its Particular Brand of Melancholy,” Limón sketches our heroine’s life:
It only happens when she passes
Kentucky Fried Chicken, especially
Kentucky Fried Chicken in other countries
with long lines and bright posters
that make things look familiar,
but not necessarily appetizing.
Then she wonders, What part of the human
body is kindness stored in,
where is it situated in the bone?
When will she be able to wish her ex-husband
good luck and mean it,
be a well-wisher, a do-gooder, get wings?
Is it something she could see, some sharp
bony mass sticking out of the ribs?
If it was fried, could she eat it?
The neon signs in Kentucky Fried Chicken
make it simple, but more hurtful in a way,
saying, it’s just been too long since she’s
had a family bucket, a biscuit,
been called a good girl. (21)
While this big fake world follows a typical narrative arc, there’s no other poet that so naturally weaves story and verse, humor and sadness. The “familiar” story becomes unexpectedly appetizing through Limón’s singular ability to “make a fire out of everyday things” (66).
The main tension in this collection is between our hero and our heroine, but the most interesting character by far is Lewis, the drunk and our hero’s friend. Limón depicts Lewis through letters he writes to Ronald Reagan:
I was watching the Discovery Channel a couple of weeks ago and learned about the whale shark […] Ronald, its mouth is six feet across. That’s just an inch taller than I am. That mouth could swallow me lengthwise. Ever since I’ve learned about that mouth, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. […] I have been wanting to be swallowed whole, Ronald. I have not told my best friend or the people at the beer distributors. I feel phenomenally selfish about it. I want that swallowing-mouth all to myself. I want it to take me in, in its big mouth, and keep me there until I grow old in its warm, warm belly, floating in this big fake world. (58)
Limon creatively shows us the emotional contours of her characters as they make their way through “this big fake world.” Granted, Limón’s epistolary shift is rather strange, the letters are convincingly humorous and sad, which is to say they are convincingly human.
This big fake world builds into a parable about redemption and refuge. In a world that doesn’t fit into a manageable snow globe, the characters learn to deal with their own uselessness, emptiness, sadness, and “other big dumb words in the dictionary” (37). I don’t want to spoil the story, but rest assured that the characters find small ways to satisfy their basic need for love—that gnawing thing, that hunger. Limón’s story in verse teaches us to “hold close to the lost and the unclear, / and, in our own odd little way, find some refuge here” (66).
Ada Limón is originally from Sonoma, California. A graduate of the Creative Writing Program at New York University, she won the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry and has received fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She works as the Copy Director for GQ Magazine and is teaching a Master's class for Columbia’s MFA program in Spring 2008. Her first book, lucky wreck, was the winner of the 2005 Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her second book, this big fake world, was the winner of the 2005 Pearl Poetry Prize.
Sea S. Perez is a co-founder of Achiote Press and author of several
chapbooks, including constellations gathered along the ecliptic (Shadowbox Press, 2007), all with ocean views (Overhere Press, 2007), and preterrain (Corollary Press, 2008). His first book, from unincorporated territory, is forthcoming this year from Tinfish Press. He blogs at blindelepant.blogspot.com.