By g emil reutter
The ninety-two stanza poem creates, both in form and image, a sense of self in relationship to time and place. Each stanza is in three lines (tercet) and extends over nine pages. Although long, the poem is well controlled and a pleasure to read.
Another poem that demonstrates Tabios’ unique poetic abilities is The Ineffability of Mushrooms (A Novella in Verse) on page 192 to196, which tells a storywith the time being prior to war. Tabios uses numbers in groupings of tercets to indicate chapters.
Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.
By Greg Bem
You are not to speak after this manner in the Court
I will speak the Truth as long as I live.
The power of history is in its sense of foundation. History is heavy, sturdy, and yet buried. It is at once knowable and unknowable, arousing yet distanced. In today’s world of the minute, precise present, where every moment is a tweet, and every flick of the wrist receives, shares, or creates information, the object as bound to history feels more and more exotic. This exoticism may be a distant echo brimming of nostalgia and heartache, or a fuzzy layer destabilizing the already-frail sense of place within the contemporary. Structure is provided by the artists, who pull us in, making history more accessible, more enjoyable, more present. Even at their most abstracted and amorphous, it is artwork that turns history into arousal, into the poetic.
In Salem, Catherine Corman’s new collection of collage poems and original photography, is a new example of such arousal. Before the book even opens, it invites the reader with a 16th Century image from a book on witchcraft. The text inside is at once literary and visual. Short poems fill the left-hand side of the book. Short poems pulled directly from the voices of testimonies from the Salem Witch Trials. Multiple women’s voices are present and enmeshed with the accusing/prosecuting authorities: Abigail Hobbs, Deliverance Hobbs, Dorcas Hoar, Elizabeth Johnson, Elizabeth Proctor, and Mary Etsy. The found text is picked apart, pulled together, informed through and through. The resulting “collage” revisits the grim history in a new, brief form. One moment on one page the poetry feels absurd. Several pages later, it is depressing. Times still, it feels distant and murky. Corman’s ability to weave the dramatic with the harsh invigorates the sense of history that often comes off flat when retold by authors or thorough realists. The world of then, as with the world of now, has both concise and broad brushstrokes of cruelty and compassion. The goal of this book appears to show representation of both. One of the goals of In Salem, in other words, appears to be in the placement of the reader “in Salem.”
The children cryed there was a yellow bird with her
Challenged by history, challenged by time, books often utilize techniques to create new layers of meaning, improved understanding of complexity. Lenses upon lenses overlap, thwarting a bias towards reduction and simplicity. Corman’s poetry, collaged and swirling like fog over a coastline, goes far in indicating complexity. It is supported with black and white images on the right-hand side of each spread. These images offer glimpses, visualizations, of the dry, cutting trial testimony within the text. Images of the rooms and pastoral scenes of the properties reveal the lives of these phantom-like voices. They are another form of foundation, despite how fleeting they too feel in the course of the book.
The book feels quite fleeting from the moment it begins. It is a blink in history that is tackled by an artist who is concerned with the assault upon and oppression of a very specific group of women in American history. By the time the back cover is reached, the urge to begin the text for a second time erupts. Could that be all there is? Isn’t there more? The imposing pressure of such a short work leaves the reader with great urgency. But that foundation of history—its presence, its realm of possibilities—remains, and grows. In many ways, thus, In Salem is a portal capable of triggering significant transformation, though such change requires a steadied, focused reader who brings their own intention into Corman’s framework.
You can find the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781946433626/in-salem.aspx
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com.
By Laura Hulthen Thomas
The title of Kelly Fordon’s new short story collection confidently asserts I Have the Answer, but these thirteen sparkling, insightful stories answer intimate conundrums about love, identity and relationships with ever more complicated questions. Teens on the cusp of adulthood grapple with phantom limbs and the true meaning of exorcism and faith. Vanished husbands, re-imagined as pale imitations of the men they once were, provoke their partners’ scrutiny rather than closure. To their skeptics’ surprise, “crazy” characters who claim to have all the answers actually prove they do. As characters seek peace and acceptance in offbeat, unexpected ways, Fordon reveals that finding the answer more often means asking the right question.
Learning to ask questions rather than live with dead-end answers drives many of the stories’ plots. In the collection’s opening story, “The Shorebirds and the Shaman,” an affluent freelance designer battles a self-imposed isolation after her husband’s untimely death. Fordon deftly choreographs Corinne’s rage and loneliness into humorous moments that pick at her wounds before healing them. When a friend tricks her into attending a weekend of New Age therapy, Corinne’s emotional journey from outrage and skepticism at a shaman’s dubious medium act is both funny and heart-wrenching. The story ends with Corrine’s moving repossession of her life, not by burying her dead, but imagining her husband resurrected through the therapeutic group role play she’d dismissed: “Whatever they’d had…It was worth study.” Corinne’s recovery from acute grief is like the reluctant migration of the Lake Erie shorebirds she and her husband once studied: “It’s the fact that they can’t see across that stymies them…It literally stops them in their tracks until they’re so cold they have no choice but to brave it.”
Some of Fordon’s characters don’t seek to question their lives so much as find a way to tell a different story about both the past and the future. In “Jungle Life,” a young man repeatedly interviews his Alzheimer’s-stricken father about a buddy’s fate during a WWII recon mission, only to hear a new version every time. As the son wonders which version is true, he also comes to realize that picking the truth is more his own choice than his father’s. In “Get a Grip,” an architect whose her husband leaves her for another woman is visited, or rather crashed, by her crazy neighbor. Mary Keane, the neighbor, imagines a coffee klatch with Maura’s husband Howard, Oprah and Thomas Jefferson. “Are we going to participate in the politics of cynicism or the politics of hope?” Mary Keane demands of Maura, who hadn’t yet known she’d been struggling to answer this very question. This comic resurrection echoes the plot of the collections’ first story, but while Corrinne’s role-play revealed what was eternal about her marriage, seeing Howard in the company of his betters prompts Maura to remember that his complaints about her faults had long hidden her desperate wish for him to leave. When Mary Keane pantomimes throwing the imaginary Howard out of her house, Maura holds the door wide open.
Who tells the story, and which version of the truth they offer, are beautifully examined in “Devil’s Proof,” when a Catholic school teen’s fear of Satanic possession collides with her coming of age questions about sex, love, and danger. When Marie learns that the 70s cult classic “The Exorcist” was based on a true story, she worries over the film, which was shot in Georgetown, her home: “I’d grown up with a Catholic fear of the devil, but I had no idea that he could just decide to lodge inside a person against her will.” Her father’s comment that he believes devil possession is “very rare” strikes her as less of a reassurance than a comment on her parents’ fraying marriage. Seeping through the story’s wry, muted humor is a sobering contemplation of the various ways places and people have possessed and are still possessing others. Fordon expertly uses rich details of an historic Georgetown school campus to suggest the conundrums of privilege: “The (Senior) Lodge… was rumored to have sheltered runaway slaves during the Civil War. The leaded glass windows still sported names and dates (the earliest: 1802) etched into the panes with former students’ engagement ring diamonds.” Fordon leaves it to the reader to question whether the names etched with diamonds would use their status to protect, or to oppress. Later in the story, an ambiguous sexual encounter poses more brutal questions about the true meaning of permission and desire, and whether consent is arbitrated by the devil outside of us, or within us.
Throughout the collection, Fordon’s sly humor about middle-class perks—Costco, grocery delivery services, trendy psychotherapy, binge shopping—bind together the women who both rue and rely upon these props. In “Tell Them I’m Happy Now,” a mother of three young kids proves her dedication to home and hearth through hectic renovations and redecorations, including painting her daughter’s bathroom a garish Barbie-pink, complete with a Barbie mural staring down the toilet. Crazy neighbor May Keane proclaims that her mother “…went to the land of Costco, where all of her dreams come true.” These women’s devotion to the comforting, if blinding, pursuit of privilege is comic, but not played for laughs. Fordon neither judges nor questions these material quests and coping mechanisms, but allows the women’s shared experiences of grief, loss, and love to wade through their stuff. With humor, wisdom, and a dash of crazy-making, Fordon’s deft, lyrical writing and gentle yet pointed comedy create endearing, realistic characters looking for the very answers the reader hopes to find.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0814347525/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
Laura Hulthen Thomas heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Witness, Epiphany, The Cimarron Review, and many other literary journals. Her short story collection, STATES OF MOTION was a finalist for a Foreword Reviews Indie Award.
By Branwen Armstrong
In her memoir In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado describes the abusive relationship that she had with another woman. Taking an experimental approach to the memoir form, Machado creates a compelling narrative that describes both the love and the horror she felt while in a two-year relationship with “the woman from the dream house.” The experimental approach is when an author strays from the traditional form of a narrative. Machado breaks the form of the narrative by writing her “chapters” in different genres to match what it is that she is discussing. The experimental approach allows Machado to engage her audience in many different ways, by both confirming the experiences that her queer readers might have had while also teaching her audience about the horrors of abuse and the way that the world deals with it. She uses historical and legal information to show that the world does not view homosexual abuse, especially woman-on-woman violence, with the same urgency and worry that they view heterosexual abuse. This means that many women in queer relationships are not taken as seriously when they talk about it. Machado is one of the first authors to write down and publish her experience, showing the world the horror that she faced.
Machado employs an innovative structure that sets her memoir apart from others. Her book is written in small sections, some ranging a sentence and others reaching around five pages. Each section is titled “Dream House as…” (examples include “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure” and “Dream House as Queer Villainy”) and these titles give an idea as to what Machado plans to explore in the section. There are some sections, “Dream House as Lost in Translation,”’ in which this idea of a frame works really well by describing how Machado attempted to talk to her girlfriend about an issue and how the woman turns it around on her. “You talk to her. You are clear. You think you are clear. You say what you are thinking and you say it after thinking a lot, and yet when she repeats what you’ve said back to you nothing makes sense.” This section shows how language can be misinterpreted based on the person’s intentions and the way something is said, and this can be seen as a form of something being lost in translation. However, there are other sections in the book, such as “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” in which the main meaning of the section gets lost within the experimental form. The reader finds herself getting confused as to what it is being told to her and this can cause the story to become lost. However, as a whole, the experimental framing of each section adds a unique turn to the memoir style and to the telling of Machado’s story. It causes the reader to see the horror of the relationship while also gaining a deeper understanding of Machado’s inner thoughts, allowing for the question of “Why didn’t you just leave?” to be addressed. The reader understands why she didn’t leave, and the framework that the book is put into allows us to gain this information in a unique way.
The framework of her memoir also allows Machado to intersperse both historical and legal information that pertains to the queer community by contextualizing various thematic readings. Her section titled “Dream House as Ambiguity” discusses how the queer identity, especially the female queer identity, has always been elusive and difficult to understand to the heterosexual person. She states that,
Heterosexuals have never known what to do with queer people, if they think of their existence at all. This has especially been the case for women… This confusion has taken many forms, including the flat-out denial that sex between women is even possible.
She then precedes to discuss how many legal positions about female queer abuse have not been taken seriously due to the ambiguous idea that women could not be the victim of another woman’s abuse. The factual information that Machado adds to her book allows her to reach out to her broad audience, but the information sits differently depending on who is reading it. For the readers who are a part of the queer community and who have possibly faced the legal system ignoring their abuse because of their sexuality, the facts that Machado places in her book shows that those readers are not alone. These are also used as a way to reach out to the heterosexual audience, teaching them about the issues that queer people have to face and how abusive relationships still do appear in queer relationships despite what media says.
Not only does Machado add historical and legal information into her book, but her story is also littered with references to Disney movies, sitcoms and science fiction television shows, 80s music, and mythologies. Like the factual information, these references are often placed into their own sections, examples being “Dream House as I Love Lucy” in which Machado discusses how the popular 1950s television show jokes about the idea of stolen identities, making something horrible into something funny. She writes,
Even now, I feel uneasy watching episodes of TV shows about mistaken or stolen identities. The slipperiness of reality that comes along with the comedic device of misunderstanding when someone is not mistaken at all feels uncomfortable to me…. All with a sheen of slapstick, a humorous distance. Isn’t this funny? This is funny! It’s so funny! It could be funny! One day this will be funny! Won’t it?
It is moments such as these where Machado’s ability to show the repercussions of trauma appear in incredible clarity. The reader is able to gain a deeper understanding about how trauma can affect a person, causing her to look at the world in a different way by making it difficult to find humor out of something horrible. Machado attempts to reach out to her audience and explain the need for balance between humor and serious conversation about trauma through her references.
Machado also uses her references to discuss the way that the queer community is often portrayed in media. She states that, “Narratives about mental health and lesbians always smack of homophobia” and how, because of this, it is often difficult to distinguish the fictional stereotype from the reality. She describes how, even after the idea of queerness has been accepted by the majority of popular culture, the lesbian character is often portrayed as an obsessive lunatic who is violent and a stalker. It is because of images like this that when a woman actually acts this way, it affects the entire queer community because it reinforces the stereotype. “I am unaccountably haunted by the specter of the lunatic lesbian. I did not want my love to be dogged by mental illness or personality disorder or rage issues… if I could say anything to her, I’d say… ‘stop making us look bad.’” On the flip side, Machado also praises certain representations of “negative” queerness in her section titled “Dream House as Queer Villainy.” She states that she understands the issue in how “villainy and queerness became shorthand for each other” but how she still finds that she loves the queer villains in Disney and other movies. The reason behind this is because this representation allows people to “give space to queers to be — as characters, as real people — human beings” and how these characters show “the idea that queer does not equal good or pure or right.” She praises the idea of allowing queer characters to be seen as imperfect and evil because it creates fascinating characters who feel more realistic than a stereotype.
Machado’s ability to weave historical and legal facts as well as allusions and references into her narrative about her abusive relationship shows a deep understanding that there is a need to put her story out into the world. People who have been in similar situations can find it comforting to know that they are not alone, while others can use it as a tool to learn more about the queer community. The framed sections that Machado writes her book in, while sometimes being a bit too confusing, create a fairly stable environment for her to engage her material in. She uses the short sections to point out the flaws in the way the queer community is represented and treated by society while balancing it with her own narrative. Her book’s form allows her to reach out to a wider audience in hopes of teaching people about the importance of shifting our world’s views on queer abuse by not hiding it in the shadows or making a mockery of it. In all, Machado’s In the Dream House is a unique reading experience that shows both the strength of a woman who suffered horrible abuse while successfully shedding light on the way that they world views queer relationships.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Dream-House-Carmen-Maria-Machado/dp/1644450038
Branwen Armstrong is currently an undergraduate student at Eckerd College, studying for a BFA in Creative Writing and a double minor in Japanese and Literature. Branwen writes fantasy as well as LGBT+ short stories and novels. Armstrong is the recipient of the James A Michener Creative Writing Scholarship, the first recipient of the Hunter Pressley Annual Scholarship for Creative Arts, and has been nominated for the Writing Excellence Award for Eckerd College’s Writing Portfolio.