Month: August 2015

Illustrations: Emily Traynor

Illustrations: Emily Traynor

Emily Traynor is a freelance illustrator whose familial roots are historically tied to Pittsburgh, where she moved to pursue a BA in Studio Arts at the University of Pittsburgh. Since graduating in 2010, she has continued to develop her artistic style and technique, particularly exploring […]

Collage: Cindy Vattathil

Collage: Cindy Vattathil

Cindy Vattathil, a Bohemian mother of two from Houston, Texas, has been saving scraps of paper her whole life. Little did she know they would serve as a channel for her artistic voice. Like Matisse, she has found a youthful happiness when “painting with scissors,” […]

Confluence by Sandra Marchetti

Confluence by Sandra Marchetti

Sundress Publications, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-939675-16-3
Perfect bound, 82 pp., $14
Review by Catherine Moore

Confluence is Sandra Marchetti’s debut book of poetry, which reads with the fluidity of a master poet. Marchetti writes powerful lyrical poems rooted in nature and landscapes. The strength of her poetry lies in precise imagery and a unique tonal quality. Thematically, the poems in Confluence revel in intimacies, in relationships, and in the merging between person and place. It is a collection of highly stylized odes where, at each emotional juncture, Marchetti seems quietly exuberant for singing: be in your world.

In a recent conversation with a colleague, the poet Jeff Hardin, he shared his study of poet’s first poems from their first collections and how they can act as a touchstone for the poet’s body of work. This idea resonated with me as I read through Confluence, a collection that feels consistently rooted back to the opening poem, which begins with a description of birds overhead, “Soft bulbs of morpho blue, / tight light pruned to a circuit, / the swallows feather and vector the wind.”

In this poem, “Never-Ending Birds,” the speaker is an observer, quiet and still—“I plume to watch,” “I let them scrim,” “I swallow, lift my chest.”—while the birds are active, the ever-moving element in the piece. These birds “twist neatly solar,” “they ring the trees as their own / sweet planets” and “bright as floods / in winter, flap the wind that takes them, / pushes them into its envelope.” Has this poet declared herself an observational commentator in the way of the romantic poets? There is clearly a border between the silent witness and the chaos of the physical world around. The merging of the two is where the narrative lies, well-layered under lyrical exposition: a confluence in both respects.

Marchetti revisits this notion of merging throughout the collection. Her poem, “Never-Ending Birds,” is titled after David Baker’s collection (as cited in the end-notes.) Both Baker’s collection and Confluence are filled with poems of longing, though one is wrought with sadness and the other almost bright with anticipation. The birds in Confluence are about connection, and less about separation. I spoke with Marchetti about this homage, since Baker’s collection is one I, too, admire, and she shared,

Baker’s phrase rung in my head after I heard him read that poem at Printer’s Row Lit fest in Chicago one year. I just loved the idea of it, but I think I pretty much divorced much of his meaning from it when creating my own piece.

I agree—her book is about a coming together, not separation. But I think both collections have the same careful attention to nature and how it’s reflected in seemingly subtle but startling images. With a nod to another poet in this opening poem and the presence of additional epigraphs and author notes, one can appreciate that Marchetti is well-read, and willing to participate in the greater dialogue among poets.

Another hallmark I find in Marchetti’s writing is an overt attention to sonic concerns. Again from “Never-Ending Birds”:

I swallow, lift at my chest where the freckles
crack, where the wet wings gleam. Swallows
sweep out to swing my heart up with the hawk
who circles the skirmish, weeps, and screams.

This reader took flight in the soaring S’s and L’s and I’m not certain I touched down until the collection’s last poem, “One Secret”:

I neat my breath to yours,
as if you were a child; the confluence
of rhythms begin. It is only sound
and meaning. Sound and meaning

Confluence makes frequent use of assonance, alliteration, slant and end rhyme—many of the tools from formal poetry that are yet so freshly done in this collection. Sound and rhythm are an important and natural part of Marchetti’s richly musical poetry. Indeed, Marchetti shows how important sound is to crafting great poems. When she writes, “it is only sound and meaning,” these are not separate elements; the sound carries narration and reinforces meaning. In “Tea,” Marchetti writes of longing: “The lit wick of you / sleeps in another country.” In “The Language of Ice,” we hear the winter harshness: “Jagged as glass, ice flashes match / memories of church windows, a glacial past.” In the delightful “From Here,” there is playfulness:

Click the day
with a counting clock,
a meter to measure
who’s opened your door.

Marchetti’s poetry is more than musically infused traditional meditation; her poems sing authentically of place in many variations. If the moment is domestic, such as in “Hollow,” we both see and hear the doings of a kitchen:

Cracking eggs open—
click into bowl,

bowl into yolk,
eye into eye.

If the place happens to be a high bridge where frequent suicides occur, like in “Island Park,” the language is swift and sharp: “What’s young / comes lick-swift, dying / quick off the two-tiered bridge.” Then there are more pastoral poems, like “Autumn Damask,” which reflects on the landscape of the Midwest and a sense of belonging: “Roam the ground where you are / mapped, flat and free, beneath / this sky, this new sea.”

While the collection is a celebration of the confluence between human beings and nature, it is when borders between humans are crossed that Marchetti is most sensuous. The music feels breathy and elongated. The straight lines become angles or curves, such as in “The Return”:

I’m small; I know when I’ve been
swallowed whole, been rounded out
gold and beaming,

become a curve in your smile,
the element of light—broken on the tide

and “Music”:

I cup your curve; you begin
to comport your nakedness,
sign breath into my face.

in “Blue-Black”:

Awake,
I am ethereal against you.
I come into the curve,
I lay down the other—
light uncurls from foreign hands.

also “Silver”:

I pull up toward
your eye;

the triangles of our bodies
lie, then slide.

and “The Washing”:

Curved like nautilus shells,
milk-white with golden ribbing,
our spines slope to the sink;
we bow over the warmed water.

There is always an undercurrent moving beneath these poems. It is a prosody built with Marchetti’s close attention to sound and how its natural rhythms enhance the images in her poems. In “The Washing,” notice how the tension in the long vowel ‘i’ gives way to the lax sound of ‘w.’ This sound change echoes the narration’s movement. On the surface, the poetic song feels easy with its natural images and simple observations, but underneath is a well-crafted structure of elements.

I am enamored with this book and how its poems modernize formalism. Confluence is a strong debut, fresh in its approach, full of lush sound and honed meaning. As one reviewer stated, “when you read it, read it aloud.” Marchetti says of her writing obsessions: “All of these poems deal with a cluster of themes: love, landscape, distance, and the senses” and perhaps the formal way she connects it all in Confluence is through sound.

Phoning Home: Essays by Jacob M. Appel

Phoning Home: Essays by Jacob M. Appel

University of South Carolina Press, 2014 ISBN: 978-1-61117-371-0 Hardcover, 177 pp., $24.95 Review by Andrew T. Powers The best essayists are true renaissance men and women: scholars, artists, and thinkers who are disciples of life and learning. Each time they put thought to paper they […]

Our Rarer Monsters by Noel Sloboda

Our Rarer Monsters by Noel Sloboda

Sunnyoutside, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-934513-39-2
Paperback, 105 pp., $15
Review by Christopher R. Vaughan

For one of the epigraphs to his collection, Our Rarer Monsters, the poet Noel Sloboda turns to the Gerard Donovan novel, Schopenhauer’s Telescope: “The only test, Baker, is how not to erase ourselves from the map. Our history is that things don’t last. Every generation creates the right monsters to destroy itself.” In his second full-length book, the author seeks out the monsters—and monstrousness—of our world, and the terrain of his poetic hunt is wide enough to encompass the gods, monsters, and fabled characters across cultures, as well as the garages and suburban offices in which so many of us enact the sublime passions and distractions of modern life. To this tableau of the everyday and the fantastical, Sloboda brings a full quiver. Equipped with empathy and irony, keen eye and snarky barb, prose poem and couplet verse, he mostly hits his mark.

The most lethal weapon in Sloboda’s arsenal is his imagination. When scored with surprise, he can land a satisfying blow. Our Rarer Monsters is dotted with poems that insert themselves into some pantheon, allegory, or folk tale past. Thus we have “Mrs. Grendel” lamenting her fealty to a “momma’s boy” husband whose destiny should have been clear from the get-go:

I knew this day would come.
He’d get into fights

every other night, and I’d wake up
to find a broken sword

or a bloody head
nailed above my mantle—

him passed out on the kitchen floor.

In “Red-eye Stewardess,” a wide-hipped and intrusive flight attendant becomes a Swedish forest spirit:

Skogsrå in another life,
she circles today
above Cologne—
a familiar tormentor.

In “Ancient History,” the Athenian Xanthippe, much-younger wife of Socrates, tries to restore herself after his trial by burning a lifetime’s worth of books:

ledgers to track love owed her, shared
with Athens; survival guides
she shoved before him, hoping

to keep him off the flypaper.

The poet’s gift for infusing a punchy ending and sharp metaphor into a literary recasting of the mythical is also on display in “Last Bus to Hell.” This time, it’s Cerberus eying the latest Greyhound to pull up at the gates of hell, then chasing after it, for: the hellhound couldn’t resist the smooth/surfaces of a painted femme fatale.

Given Sloboda’s employment as an English professor and dramaturg for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Company, we shouldn’t be surprised to find several takes on the theatrical. It is as though we have been invited to a performance and seated next to the wry and slightly jaundiced director muttering asides in our ear. In “During a College Production of Cymbeline,” we cringe as

Iachimo
emerges long past his cue
after two minutes of
scratching and heaving
against a trunk lid that
refused to open.

Long before the director bore witness to that missed entrance, the gauzy allure of “teaching the arts” must surely have passed its sell-by date. At least for the ossifying and presumably adjunct narrator of “Teaching Hamlet at St. Egwin’s School for Girls” (another of Sloboda’s gifts: the deliciously portentous title). Here, Sloboda’s sardonic arrow is fully poised from the start—

           He pretends he is not competing
with hot electric words, half-hidden in plaid

            folds in their laps, as he attempts again
to rescue poor Polonius […]

—as the director exasperatedly cajoles his millennial pupils toward an appreciation of the bard. To what end?

            He elicits nothing but sighs and
rolled eyes from the girls, who do not want to listen

            to a cross, old man insisting that the rich boy,
clad in black, need not always steal the show.

Here, as elsewhere, I was put in mind of Richard Russo’s Straight Man, a send-up of small-town incestuousness and English-Department politics set at a state college in Rust Belt Pennsylvania (perhaps not far down the road from Penn State York, where Sloboda teaches). The raw material is almost too easy to mine, as we see in “Another Eris”:

This poem began while I was part of a group that
professed aesthetic nihilism. The woman who found-
ed the group taught philosophy at a local university.
She proposed to gather us weekly throughout the
spring to write. At the end of the season, we would
burn everything we had produced. She asserted that
destruction of the lie that is expression is the only
form of truth. I told her she was onto something
inspiring.

Here we have an echo of Xanthippe’s conflagration in “Ancient History,” and the precise deployment of matter-of-fact reporting and a mock credulity dry as the ashes of the scorched drafts. The reader once again occupies the best seat in the house (this time next to not a director but an eye-rolling workshopper): we’re in on a joke at the writing group leader’s expense—and doubtlessly beyond her grasp.

If none of this seems quite “monstrous” yet, it’s because Sloboda leaves the plurality of his poems for the quotidian concerns of small-town suburban life, and in doing so, assembles, like a sprawling McMansion, a jagged and disturbing portrait of modern existence. In addition to ancient gods and fables, Sloboda brings us a world of lawnmowers and driveway sealers, backyard weasels and stacked cordwood, cars pulling out of garages and the 9-to-5 office.

“Weasels” opens with a blast of Anglo-Saxon—“Coats molt and storms/follow”—then shifts to a display of Sloboda’s imagination threaded through apt metaphor: “The landscape/flattens, as if pressed/on a great iron griddle.” The conclusion continues the cascade of hard g and r sounds, and adds final d’s and short i’s, as the piece runs to its great last line:

making invisible the lean
gourmands only after living

meals, while everything else
rehearses slowly dying.

If trees and plants are what die here, then the vision darkens elsewhere. In “Flicker,” an unidentified bird has left “scores/of pits and pocks round the door frame” trying to “burrow/into our suburban shell” only to be turned away for good when the narrator’s stepfather seals the door with reflective tape, dooming the bird to the terminal thrashing of which dad doubtlessly boasts. The narrator of “Entanglements” confronts fearsome nature (spider webs looping tree branches) from the seeming invincibility of a ride-on mower:

                        […] Everywhere
unseen threads speak to a vision

                        too broad for one pair of eyes.
Atop my John Deere, I never spy

                        webs before I feel them upon my face—
and as the machine continues to roll

                        beneath me, I worry
the strands won’t break.

The fear of getting stuck permeates this poem, and others. Like the weasel or the pecking bird, we have the question of what is included, or excluded—in some sense, what the suburbs have always been about.

As though Sloboda has seen the enemy, and it is us, what man does to man is even grimmer. “Midway” gives us a woman, “Clamped between jaws, halfway inside/and out” of that classic suburban liminal space: the garage. En route to work, her engine won’t turn over as the car sits directly under the electrified door “groaning/like it’s giving birth.”

The other shoe drops, as it were, in “After the Buyout.” Employees in some unnamed (likely light) industry spend their “last week […] devoted to changing clocks” from analog to digital. Meanwhile, they debate “how best to employ” their upcoming unemployment:

rip apart our rotten decks, tear off

asphalt shingles, or take down
dying trees behind our homes? The volume
increased as we rehearsed acts of demolition—

yet we were careful to keep
our faces angled toward our laps,
reluctant to see what might be
stuck between our teeth.

In poems like these, Sloboda need not name the monsters: they are everywhere.

If from one side nature presses in on Sloboda’s characters, and from another, work, then so does social pressure exert itself with force. The superbly titled “Pitch” captures the quiet monstrousness of inclusion and exclusion that comprise the dark thread of our suburban history. In this poem, the homeowner narrator watches as his banker neighbor needlessly seals his driveway—the “antimatter spilled across/his double-wide roundabout.”

The blacktopping “dark rage” consumes even the poor French teacher down the way, and finally, the abashed narrator himself:

Nostalgia aside, I knew the new
surfaces didn’t matter:
mere oil and water,

so much cheap makeup smeared
over deep pockmarks,
the sealant didn’t do anything
about the damage down below.
[…]

and after a week with too little sleep—
waking daily to the smell

of envy, waste, and history—
I admitted to a neighbor
I needed a number I had
misplaced, to call the tar guys
we all used for a fix.

The oppression of keeping up with the Joneses, the waste of money and resources, the despoiling of nature: it is as though all the archetypal problems of sprawl development are captured in these lines.

Yet “Pitch” also reveals the central dilemma in reading Our Rarer Monsters. For every rich image—the “antimatter”—there is another line that lands flat as a tract-house patio. It is either because the language lacks the same punch seen elsewhere, or because the idea edges on cliché. The line about “the damage down below” is either too vague, or too patently symbolic. [T]he smell/of envy, waste, and history” borders on the tendentious. In other pieces, Sloboda’s lively conceptions can outstrip his execution, and instead of keen detail, we get abstraction and myth tied to reality, but not tightly enough.

Where Sloboda’s work succeeds, it succeeds well: modern life and ancient fable become foils for each other, and the absurdities of suburban existence accumulate into a portrait as dark and sharp-edged as a Cubist painting. Where Sloboda falls short of his mark, we see the challenge of art as an intentional comment on life. The author’s skills at pastiche and craftsmanship are on display throughout the collection. But when this runs to abstraction, the tone becomes detached—the director leaning back in his chair at yet another disappointing rehearsal, the worker who’s been pink-slipped so many times he’s numb to it.

Can a poem be detached yet powerful? To succeed within Sloboda’s ambit, the poem must either howl or cry, must either satirize or empathize. The best of his work—as in “During a College Production of Cymbeline,” with its bumbling Iachimo—repay their detachment with arch barb and satire (in this way recalling the hysterical tribulations of Professor Devereaux in Russo’s Straight Man). Where satire or ribaldry is lacking, however, and moving to the other end of the emotional spectrum, one wishes for a greater engagement between poet and subject. Philip Levine’s work comes to mind—also allegorical, also a lament to the irruptions of modern labor, but successful because of how the poet’s personal stake ignites the reader’s attention. Those poems don’t only describe a monster—they live with it. Sloboda effectively sketches a monster—and often brilliantly; he’s still a bit of an outsider, a bit of a professor in a world of office workers.

F IN by Carol Guess

F IN by Carol Guess

Noctuary Press, 2013 ISBN: 978-0-9888051-0-1 Perfect bound, 70 pp., $14 Review by Catherine Moore First thing— F  IN is an erasure. Setting aside debate on this form of writing, I’ll add that it is an erasure of the author’s own work. Both the content and […]

From Here by Jen Michalski

From Here by Jen Michalski

Aqueous Books, 2014 ISBN: 978-0-9892387-6-2 Perfect bound, 270 pp., $16 Review by Stephanie Renae Johnson Jen Michalski’s collection from Aqueous Books, From Here, is a finely wrought work. Michalski expertly surrounds readers with identifiable characters and heart-whelming plots. While From Here contains twelve stories that […]

Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas (The Margellos World Republic of Letters) by Patrick Modiano, Translated by Mark Polizzotti

Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas (The Margellos World Republic of Letters) by Patrick Modiano, Translated by Mark Polizzotti

Yale University Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-0300198058
Paperback, 232 pp., $16
Reviewed by Nathan Leslie

Last fall, when I heard that Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, I met the news with a torpid shrug. Of course, I’m delighted for Modiano—an accomplished author of numerous novels over the past forty-plus years—but at the same time, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the role of prizes in the literary sphere in general. Here’s the thing: Literary prizes act as a natural filter for the reading public who otherwise wouldn’t read (much less be acquainted with) a certain author—this year, Patrick Modiano. This irony cuts both ways: The prize educates us, but it also lends preference to the winner over hundreds upon hundreds of other worthy authors. Prizes act as a kind of running literary canon, unfairly so—selecting a lucky few and ignoring the rest. Like crows to shiny objects, we are suckers for a gold sticker on a book jacket (Winner!); prizes are most rewarding for the author, the prize-giver, and the publisher. But we know all this; nothing I have written thus far is news.

More importantly: Why have literary prizes at all? Why pit one writer against another? Why the need to insert competition into an activity—writing (and reading)—that is inherently non-competitive? (I rarely enter literary prizes for this reason, among others.) Why the excessive hysteria and hand-wringing? At a certain level, often, one writer is not necessarily better or worse than another—just different, and aesthetic tastes are subjective and gnarly. The entire prize exercise is gratuitous and frankly vestigial; we can image that the $1.1 million for the winner could be better spent on something more productive—literacy campaigns, for instance.

Along the lines of hype, I read many of the 240-plus comments by New York Times readers on the Times website accompanying the October 9, 2014 Alter and Bilefsky piece reporting the good news. Reader commentary vacillated between the insightful (Israeli writers Oz, Appelfeld, and Grossman are just as worthy; Americans don’t read Francophone novels) and the moronic (John Le Carré should’ve won—duh). But why the debate and at what cost? Don’t we have better things to do with our time than wrangle about which author is more deserving and why?

Stripped away from politics and brouhaha, Suspended Sentences is a lovely, supple book of three novellas rife with haunted nostalgia and yearning. As translator Mark Polizzotti’s vital introduction tells us, these novellas were published over the course of five years, and though they are not interrelated, they are of a whole. Yes, they are: all three novellas are soaked with memory and a sense of a time lost, which gives the book as a whole a melancholy, bittersweet air. Personally, I found the moody quality of Modiano’s prose compelling, though others may find it tiresome or overly digressive.

Plot is primarily of the second order in this particular book. Modiano tends to loosely string events together so that he can investigate the real subject matter at hand—evoking the Paris of his youth. In the first (and most tightly plotted and efficacious) novella of the three, “Afterimage,” the first-person narrator reflects back upon a time in his apprenticeship as a writer (he was nineteen) when he knew a photographer by the name of Francis Jansen. Jansen has a tendency for disappearing—either by travelling elsewhere or, more importantly, for his art, vanishing into the background to better capture the world around him on film. To say Jansen comes and goes is a brash understatement. In the meantime, the narrator hangs out with Nicole in Jansen’s studio, trying to avoid Gil the Mime (yes, really), Nicole’s jealous husband. Cafés, séances, and Jansen’s more famous buddy, Robert Capra, play small roles. Though episodic, the novella uses the snapshot structure well, each little two- or three-page section operating as a kind of portal into this world.

The second story (the title novella) contains some of the most beautiful prose of the three in Polizzotti’s sublime translation. The narrator in this story, Patoche, reflects upon a time when he was ten years old. His parents essentially abandon Patoche and his brother at the house of some friends of hers in a town “just outside of Paris.” The house where they stay is lovely but occupied only by women—Annie, Helene Toch, and Mathilde, Annie’s mother—all of whom do the best they can with the two boys. What complicates the story are the numerous secondary characters who pop up throughout the novella—friends, neighbors, love interests, employees (one named Snow White features prominently). There’s an amusing character by the name of Roger Vincent, who wheels his big American car around town: “It stopped in front of the house like a speedboat with its motor cut off, carried in by the tide to berth silently on the shore.” As a result of the episodic structure of this novella—more an account of a time period than a causal narrative, “Suspended Sentences” feels much more autobiographical and probing than “Afterimage.” What emerges from this wistful stew, however, is the disclosure that an acquaintance of the group—Louis Pagnon—may have saved Patoche’s father in the occupation. Patoche hits the archives in an attempt to figure out the puzzle and tries to track down Pagnon’s garage, where Pagnon used to work as a mechanic. The building is long gone. At the conclusion of the novella, the prose circles back to abandonment, ending with, “And my brother and I, we pretended to play in the garden, waiting for someone to come collect us.”

The final novella, “Flowers of Ruin,” is so episodic (bouncing between a past murder-suicide and reflections upon Parisian neighborhoods, cafés, and bookstores) that I initially had a difficult time finding its focal point. Eventually, however, the novella zeroes in on Philippe de Bellune (aka Pacheco), who was wanted for “colluding with the enemy, who might or might not have survived the Dachau concentration camp.” Ultimately, in one of the most gripping passages of the book, the narrator opens his luggage, only to find an identity card which (not to spoil) reveals an interesting identity twist. Overall, I found “Flowers of Ruin” a vexing read, in that it was so intermittent as to deny the reader any thread of a consistent narrative at all.

For my money, it is worth reading this collection of novellas for its evocation of a lost time, if not just for a different perspective on narration altogether. Modiano’s prose is extremely diffuse at times, which can prove a challenge for readers who prefer a tighter storyline and/or rich characterization (if you dislike anti-climax, Modiano is not the writer for you). However, I find his languor and searching prose persuasive and pretty enough to make the ride, for the most part, worthwhile. It is impossible to tell whether or not these novellas are intended as lightly-cloaked autobiography. Polizzotti makes the case in his introduction that several parallels exist between the author’s life and work. I read these three novellas as reflections, rather than pure fiction—but even so, the scattered quality of the prose can act as a distraction. A greater problem with Suspended Sentences as a whole are the numerous secondary characters that float in and out of the prose (especially in the title story), sometimes disappearing entirely. This does capture a certain reality; people float in and out of our lives. But with so many strings untied, the narratives become overly raggedy and thin.

French prose still lingers under the considerable shadows of the nouveau roman authors, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet in particular, evident in Modiano’s prose on every page. There is the flat delivery, relative plotlessness, striking imagery, and cruelty lurking just beneath the surface (the occupation, in this case). Polizzotti has also, not surprisingly, translated Duras. But somehow, Modiano has carved out his own distinct voice in this shadow, his own preoccupations. Prize or no prize, his work is worth reading and investigating, and Suspended Sentences is a good start. One hopes that, with the Nobel Prize in hand, an interested reader might be able to find more of his books in English translation.

Wunderkammer by Cynthia Cruz

Wunderkammer by Cynthia Cruz

Four Way Books, 2014 ISBN: 978-1-935536-47-5 Paperback, 72 pp., $15.95 Review by M. Ross Henry The wonder chamber, or cabinet of curiosities, occupies a unique space in history. These rooms emerged in the sixteenth century and functioned as encyclopedic collections of objects belonging to three […]