Month: March 2016

A Conversation With Josip Novakovich, Author of Ex-Yu, April Fool’s Day, et al

A Conversation With Josip Novakovich, Author of Ex-Yu, April Fool’s Day, et al

Interview by Nathan Leslie Josip Novakovich emigrated from Croatia to the United States at the age of 20, and after quitting medical school, studied psychology, theology, and philosophy, before turning to fiction writing. He has published a novel, April Fool’s Day (in ten languages); a […]

Time Trials by Jessica Lynn Dotson

Time Trials by Jessica Lynn Dotson

L + S Press, 2015 Stapled, 30 pp., $10 Review by C.L. Bledsoe Jessica Lynn Dotson is a fixture on the Baltimore literary scene. She’s an editor for Free State Review and hosts a reading series called Town Square. I’ve seen her around but wasn’t […]

The Cartographer’s Ink by Okla Elliott

The Cartographer’s Ink by Okla Elliott

NYQ Books, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-63045-010-6
Paperback, 103 pp., $14.95
Review by Michael T. Young

Elizabeth Bishop said, “More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.” One does not think of the term “delicate” when reading Okla Elliott’s first collection, The Cartographer’s Ink. However, the lands and borders it charts, like all the lines we draw to delineate our world, are a tracing of the dramas that shape meaning. These are lines that can be subtle and, in that sense, “delicate.” Perhaps this is the point of the title. In the collection, one wrestles with the darker problems of human nature in light of the unspoken hope to come to terms with them, to find a way to live not just in spite of them but by embracing them. As the opening poem, “The Light Here,” tells us,

It is a light I could live in
if I came to terms with certain failings
in my character
and the character of others.

Thus the trajectory of our journey through the collection is set. Those failings are going to be the essence of what we face in the coming poems. It will be a mix of violence and helplessness, folly and seriousness. The central long poem, “Emerging from Clouds,” is a confession of betrayal but told years after the fact when the person betrayed, at the time, had no idea. As the poem’s title suggests, it is a clearing of the air or, at the least, a way of getting beyond the deceptions and self-deceptions that tend to clog daily life. Toward the end of the poem, the speaker says,

I told myself—and believed
. . . . . . . (still do to this day),
the human heart has more room for love.
. . . . . . . But as we all agree,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . in action if not words,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . the heart must be stifled;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . its wantonness is more
. . . . . . . . . . . . . than we are prepared to suffer.

This desire, this wantonness, is central to the human problems confronted throughout. The second poem in the collection, “Wolf-Sense Sonnet,” warns “There’s a note of desert music in us” and concludes

You will walk me wolfily into new need,
And our oasic images will mirror-mirage.

Even our places of refuge will have an air of deception about them. It’s difficult to outwit the blindness of our own natures. But that’s where the wit and humor of these poems come in, as a kind of redemption. We mustn’t take ourselves too seriously for, no matter what our accomplishments or failings, we all face the same end. Thus we are reminded over and over that life is always at the brink of apocalypse.

Perch, please, with me on the edge
of an apocalypse.
(“This Bothersome Bird”)

It’s not surprising that we come upon such oxymorons as “silly graves” or “silly-serious ailment.” In this way, it’s a kind of mithridate. We take in a little of the hard realities and their absurdity to inoculate ourselves and find compassion. So these poems

. . . will lead you through strange danger,
one million nights of apocalyptic lust.
(“Wolf-Sense Sonnet”)

And there it is, our desires always taking us to the brink, toward something “apocalyptic.” It’s a driving force that we must come to terms with if we’re to survive and finally come to live in the initial light of that first poem. That’s what the humor is, a kind of Buddhist acceptance which the poems also poke some fun at in the poem “I Want to Be a Buddhist—Or: Reading Martin Heidegger Mildly Hung-Over.” The poem documents the number of ways in which the speaker can’t be a Buddhist, my personal favorite being, “I want to be a Buddhist but can’t because I like whiskey / more than enlightenment.” Toward the end of the poem the speaker stumbles into his freedom,

The ice crashes loud and slippery,
melts to hilarity.
. . . . . . . Hilarity is the world withdrawing from me, me
detaching myself from the world, like a proper Buddhist.

This is, of course, the groundwork for a more integrated view of the self and its relationship to the world. All the war and darkness of some of the poems early in the collection such as “Blackened,” “The Patience of the Landmine,” and “Alien War, Human War,” are understood as products of our desires fracturing our relationships, fracturing the self itself, compartmentalizing the psyche that justifies getting what it wants at all costs, as “Pointless Movement” confirms:

Our patterned selves, playing at being ourselves,
non-coextensive concepts—me and I, you and you.

Or, more darkly, as “Alien War, Human War,” a poem about the Iraq invasion, discloses with a more universal mind, “Making others alien to ourselves / we diminish all things.”

Thus there is a drive toward a vision of unity in these poems. As “The Parable of the Worm in the Apple” concludes,

And Willie has a message
for uptight philosophers with rules like Kant
and for uptight lovers who want to let go but can’t:

When the worm in the apple has feasted
the apple is in the worm.

These wry lines recall the famous lines from the Emerald Tablet, “As above, so below. As within, so without.” The poems that follow and conclude the collection all deal with integrating more aspects of the dark forces in human nature. For instance, accepting with humor, that “even the greats sometimes felt icky.” Or how all the meanings we find in stars and gravitational movements have nothing to do with astrology and unchangeable destinies but rather with “vessels designed to bring us closer.” Those connections are ways of connecting to the world and each other. That could be the ars poetica of these poems: accepting and embracing the darkness inside and outside as what is common to every human. The last two poems of the collection exemplify. The penultimate is “The Apocalypso—Or: May I Have the Last Dance?” The title alone is a humorous acceptance of death. The final poem, “The Inside Bird” concludes:

There is a fallen bird
on both sides of the window

The outside bird is a cardinal, dead
The inside bird is actually a bat

My friends of the broken window
let us nurse this inside bird

to screeching health
. . . . . . . Let us make its future our own

These poems carry a heavy weight and lighten it with wit. They move from formal to free verse to prose poems. Although rhyme and alliteration are employed and imagery is used to suggest meaning, the overall aesthetic of the collection is not of the musical ear or of fine imagery, but of the urgency of what is needed, the necessary insight that breaks through the indiscriminate urges and drives that make for so much darkness in the world. Thus the poems can, on occasion, tend toward the abstract but are rescued by their immediacy and candor. So we are told, “The night reminded me of nothing. / It was its own.” That kind of identity is what the underlying themes tend toward, the hope that what we desire to be and what we are is the same thing. That is the beacon toward which all the movements of the collection drift. The early poem, “Visiting Lenin’s Tomb,” says,

To be able to say finally
and honestly
that I want to live
in the time I am, as the person
I am, with the facts and reasons

of myself broadcast all around me—

this, this—

is my single remaining dream.

Summer of the Long Knives by L.S. Bassen

Summer of the Long Knives by L.S. Bassen

Signal 8 Press, 2014 ISBN: 978-988-12196-9-5 Perfect bound, 192 pp., $16.95 Review by Cynthia Reeser Because quantum theory has proved infallible in every conceivable experiment, the same weird quantum rules must apply to us. We, too, must exist in many states at once, even if […]

My First Date: An Apology by Andrew Bertaina

My First Date: An Apology by Andrew Bertaina

Every good story carries within it the root of infinite possibilities. And the first time a girl asked me out, I briefly saw that infinity branching out before me in its intricate complexity, and by infinite complexity I mean the two of us making out […]

Photography: Jesse Thornton

Photography: Jesse Thornton

Jesse Thornton is a fine art photographer based out of West Virginia. It was his thirst for adventure that first prompted him to pick up a camera in 2013. Self-taught in the art of photography, this fortuitous event blossomed into the unique photographic imagery he creates today, which prominently features the stars and lights that can only be seen at night. He loves using these themes to bring the beauty of his home state and the Appalachian region at large to the forefront. His online gallery and other information can be found at