book review

The Third Voice: Notes on the Art of Poetic Collaboration by Eric Greinke

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By Jennifer Hetrick
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Presa Press published what’s crucial to say across the unseen ties between one person, another, and all of us in Eric Greinke‘s The Third Voice: Notes on the Art of Poetic Collaboration.
 
Released in 2017, the book weaves academic and analytical aspects of approaching poetry through Greinke and a number of fellow scribes clearly cherished by him well beyond what’s tucked under the proverbial skull. And a reference to bones fits well here in that they’re universal in the marrow we all have and need. Heart-wrenchingly, three of five of Greinke’s collaboration partners passed away between 2011 and 2012.
 
Poet Hugh Fox shared line-writing with Greinke as final language-carving efforts in knowing cancer would take his body away from him. Their paired words intertwine into the often mentioned third voice, perhaps in the same family and vein as the idea of collective consciousness.
 
Greinke says, “Above all, we both knew that the best thing we could do in the face of Hugh’s impending death was to write a poem about it.” Embracing versus avoiding the truth of blood, bones, and the body’s systems, even in the face of cancer-too-common death, brings out a sense of truly living which isn’t as easy to see sometimes in stressed, slowly-edging-toward-the-grave others of the world.
 
Deep into drawn-out stanzas, the ninth in a 170-line poem titled “Beyond Our Control” glides with Greinke’s voice, that of his then-dying friend, and the third voice created by them for all of the world and those who cannot or do not write but whose insides would understand the meaning in the snap of a resilient finger.
 
We have been carried along by a flood of songs,
mostly in languages we didn’t understand as the audio-visual world
wasn’t our reality, but the melodies played around us as
wind-tree bird-song thunders that brought us back to our real selves
yet forward and away from ourselves too, into a long
immersion in the sensual celebrations of
sub-atomic love down ancient genetic pathways.
 
While the collaborative poems in this book sometimes blend voices across lines, others are one written in response to another (“Axes” to “Swiss Army [Knife],” “Carpenter Ants” to “Black Flies” with Harry Smith who Greinke so enjoyed talking to by phone but never actually met). A number of poems spanning these pages are similar to former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and the late Jim Harrison’s book Braided Creek, penned as correspondence while Kooser went through cancer—although the two perhaps wisely and whimsically elected not to identify which friend wrote which of the 300+ observer-oriented glimmers published by Copper Canyon Press in 2003.
 
Greinke’s reverence for collaborative poetry stretches from the early 1970s into recent years, and he’s never limited himself in the possibilities of how combining mind-space with that of a good friend builds strength and art which might not otherwise float on up into this realm of days.
 
Philosophy bobs and knits onward at the second surface of Greinke’s writing paired with the voices of fellow poets. But he doesn’t lend to the belief that poetry must be serious and without its own deserved comedy and comfort of awkwardness at least some of the time. He illustrates this in the following instructional poem excerpt as the first of four stanzas written with Ronnie Lane , first published in their joint venture Great Smoky Mountains in 1974.
 
Bath Ornament
 
Lay down. Chew dead calendars.
Drink Pancreas Tea.
Eat Libraries. 
 
Libraries are so valuable to literary-loving folks that wanting to gobble them up in certain moments doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
 
The beautiful mush of two brains clinking together their quirks and curiosities—and obscure or not-really-so-obscure-at-all thoughts housed in them, is a welcome specificity in stanzas.
 
“Collaborative poetry achieves a level of universality that is greater because it is a social rather than a personal artifact,” Greinke explains early on in this book. And while he didn’t say it directly, the most vital point and beauty of what he conveys, in other words—poetry-drenched ones—resonates: the world and its people need poetry. Alone and together all at once, fully, deeply, and away from the disconnection and dividing we see around us and hear about too often in the news, with hardly as much attention given to the compassion across collaborations in communities. This book’s language and goals are necessary and will show readers the often untested waters of what we can achieve when we support each other at a heart-level while we’re on this earth.
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The author of a three-year project called the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county, Jennifer Hetrick is a journalist, editor, and photographer, and she also teaches poetry in schools and state parks. Her traveling poetry class often meets at the Schuylkill River in warmer seasons.

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In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

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By Lynette G. Esposito

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The fictional novel, In the Distance by Hernan Diaz, Coffee House Press , offers a unique twist on the old western theme.  The tale is presented in a 256 page book detailing perceptions of a legend-making main character who speaks little English in an English-speaking landscape.
           
The main character, Swedish immigrant, Hakan Soderstom, arrives in America with his brother to begin a new more prosperous life than the poor farming existence they lived in rural Sweden.. The brothers are separated enroute and Hakan ends up in California but believes his brother is in New York.  The irony of “go west young man” is reversed as Harkan struggles to go East. 
 
Hakan is an innocent in a strange land. He has weak communication skills because of the language barrier.  The lingual misunderstandings propel the storyline forward and give logical credence to some of Hakan’s wild adventures.
 
Diaz writes with a controlled stream of conscious that makes surreal episodes blend with reality
 
                After some pounding, the dry sinews from the larger animals split
               into fibers that Hakan separated and used as thread to stitch together
              disparate patches of cured leather with his surgical needles.
 
Imagine a man alone in the wilderness, catching, killing, curing and sewing.  It seems only a character larger than life, a legendary man, could accomplish this to survive. Yet, the image of using the fibers as thread gives such a logical spin to the process that the reader is pulled right into the scene and believes the actions of this character.
 
The story uses the universal theme of one lonely man’s survival in a wicked and dangerous world as he struggles in his journey to find the brother he loves. It is an epic journey in which Diaz presents his main character as a simple man whose adventures lead those around him to perceive him as so extraordinary, he becomes mythical. 
 
The novel is constructed in 24 chapters numerically named.  It progresses forward through telling incidents as Hakan matures from a naïve boy to an experienced man who survives his lack of money and extreme loneliness.  Hakan never loses sight of his desire to find his brother as his journey leads him through life’s many obstacles including love, honor, greed and betrayal
 
This is a good read of a nongenre “nonwestern” western exploring a foreigner’s complicated struggles in a foreign land while searching for a way to reach home.
 
Hernan Diaz Is the author of Borges, Between History and Eternity (Bloomsbury, 2012), managing editor of RHM, and associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University.
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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.
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Literature & the Great War by Randall Stevenson

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By Ray Greenblatt
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          I, an educated, middle-aged American, learned so much from this outstanding book. So many pieces of information filled in my spotty familiarity with the Great War. Prof. Stevenson has studied a staggering number of books about the War, as well as individual letters, military documents, etc. He also has a broad overview not only of literature written during the War, but of writing that preceded it as well as later literature influenced by the War. 
          The organization of Stevenson’s work is lucid: the uniqueness of the Great War; prose about the War; the poetry; and the influence of the Great War on culture generally. My discussion will follow those four divisions.
          Peace for Britain had lasted for a hundred years, with only distant skirmishes in the Empire. However, some more prescient writers, like H.G. Wells, sensed tensions growing in Europe centered in Germany. Once the War began, the government asked many authors to write encouraging comments about events taking place. Most agreed; individuals like G.B. Shaw continued to voice their own concerns. Before very long the press was censored; newspaper headlines—even cinema—were tilted toward the positive for morale sake.
          Letters from the front became a new and vital concept. What resulted was exposure in writing to the spoken word, local dialects, foreign languages, swearing, and especially “militarese.” Even then, many soldiers did not want to relate the horrors. Likewise, the older generation on the home front, who had lived more of a romantic ideal, did not want to hear the gruesome truths. Perhaps, suggests Stevenson, if the government and press had been truthful, the War might have stopped sooner!
          Since the Great War was truly titanic in scope with science developing gas masks, steel helmets, airplanes, tanks, and long-distance bombs, the average soldier felt diminished. Perhaps only the Air Force felt cavalier about one-to-one air duels. Time became meaningless in the trenches; time for those at home meant either a letter or a death notice.
          Prof. Stevenson cannily points out that lines blurred between the autobiography, memoir and novel. Coherency was often missing because that was how the mind worked during war. It was even difficult to use the right tense because under extreme stress time could freeze or rush helter-skelter.
          Siegfried Sassoon had his two selves talk in The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. T.E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom stated that soldiers felt dwarfed by Nature. R.H. Mottram‘s Spanish Farm consisted of multiple books: one about the War, another about a love affair during the War. Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End explored the inner consciousness of soldiers.
         Since I have been a working poet for nearly forty years, I think it fitting to include one of the most moving poems to come out of the Great War, since Prof. Stevenson did not have space for complete poems:
 
Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfrid Owen
 
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
 
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
 
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
 
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
 
          As Prof. Stevenson writes, poems by soldiers as well as civilians dominated the depiction of the Great War. Poetry is essentially a song that is an inherent part of mankind.  It represents emotion, exaltation, spirit, soul. Compared to a novel a poem can be quickly written; it can also be fragmentary. These qualities best fit the atmosphere of battle. Edward Thomas, a noted prose writer about Nature before the War, changed to poetry very successfully while serving in the War.
          Historically poetry had strongly been about Nature, so the tradition continued although the environment was no longer soothing. Down deep in trenches, men looked up to the sky and clouds and stars for inspiration.  But as the War progressed, idealism and heroism, as written about in many of Rupert Brooke’s poems, grew bleaker. After the battle of the Somme in 1916, the entire tenor of the War and literature as well became negative, as in Wilfrid Owen’s poetry.
          Prof. Stevenson writes that in Britain 40,000 war memorials were dedicated to the Great War. As an American I see WWI memorials fused with WWII, even the Korean and Viet Nam Wars. Many American monuments are raised to the American Revolutionary War and even more so to the American Civil War. The same horrors occurred, like tourists searching for souvenirs on the battlefield. Many say that the Great War caused history to break and progress to regress; that war will always happen.
          Without  the War no debts would have accrued and perhaps more schools and hospitals could have been constructed.  Women were offered more opportunities during and after the War. The working class man became the backbone of the army.
          Prof. Stevenson states that some things are sure, with which I agree wholeheartedly.  Poetry in English class, rather than in history class, brought the Great War vividly alive. What history disturbs, culture restores. More experimental and abstract writing was spurred by the War.  In poetry, specifically, varied line lengths and half-rhymes became more accessible. It took until well into the 1920’s for authors to be read without censorial interference. Indirect influences from the Great War can be seen in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1921), E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). And those literary changes caused by the Great War continue today!
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You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Literature-1914-1918-Oxford-Textual-Perspectives/dp/019959645X

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Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.

Guess and Check by Thaddeus Rutkowski

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By Carol Wierzbicki

Thad Rutkowski has made quite a franchise—one might even say genre—out of family dysfunction. I do not say this lightly or facetiously. In his previous autobiographical fiction Tetched (Behler Publications) and Roughhouse (Kaya Press), we meet a father with a persecution complex; a Chinese mother who’s mostly quiet and submissive but makes the occasional barbed retort; and a brother and sister who are just as isolated as Rutkowski’s protagonist, recognizing the symptoms but powerless to alleviate them.

Guess and Check is really a retrospective of Rutkowski’s mostly previously published work, exploring his experiences from his rural Pennsylvania childhood through his college years and finally adulthood in New York City.

In spite of the deadpan narrative, you find yourself rooting for the narrator, whether he’s on an awkward date (virtually all of them are in these stories) or just trying to endure one of his father’s often shrill rants (“’Enough!’” my father shouted. ‘I’ve had enough of you kids for a while.’”). His narrator’s detachment forms an eerie counterpoint to such histrionics. After reading just a few of these scenes, you can easily conclude that it’s his emotional evenness and writer’s/artist’s objectivity that has enabled him to survive the often volatile environment of the family unit.

What makes his prose surprisingly engaging is that just beneath the surface of his deadpan tone is a passionate will to survive, whether the challenges appear in interpersonal relations or grim workplace politics. And who among us would not identify with that?

Guess and Check is an odd title for a book. I marked the two passages where this phrase occurred. The first scenario has the narrator’s mother helping him with his algebra homework:

My mother looked at the same problem, worked for a minute and came up with an answer. For her, x simply equaled 4. According to the workbook, her answer was correct.

“How did you get that?” I asked.

“I can’t explain it in English,” she said. “I know the language of numbers.”

“Maybe I’ll just guess and check,” I said. “I’ll guess at an answer: then I’ll check to see if it works out.”

The second scenario involves a frightening nighttime storm rattling his childhood home. When the narrator wakes up the next morning, the stream nearby has overrun its banks and flooded fields:

I could cross the flooded field and walk up the hill on the other side. The problem was, there was nothing but brambles and tall grass on the other side.

I put on my insulated boots and got ready to go out. I didn’t know what I would find. I would have to guess and check.

Then I ran across this passage, toward the end of the book, where he muses on the often zigzag paths he takes when walking the streets of New York:

I want to find the hypotenuse, the shortest way…

Where are the hypotenuses in the city? Was this city planned by “experts” who had no sense of geometry? Did these experts forget the teachings of Euclid? Euclid of Alexandria would never have stood for this street pattern. He would have added some hypotenuses. And if Euclid couldn’t get the mayor and the City Council to adopt his plan, he would have brought in the big gun. He would have called on Ptolemy. A heavyweight like Claudius Ptolemy would have straightened out the local politicians and planners. This goes without saying. It is axiomatic.

I found this to be Rutkowski’s most profound statement in the book, while also incidentally being the most hilarious. It gives you the key to his whole world view. To him life situations—from being rejected as a child by other children, to the often absurd and confusing interactions with other New Yorkers, to the humdrum tedium of office jobs—are problems to be solved, like a math equation. There are angles to be navigated, risks to be calculated. He reduces possible catastrophes to a theorem in order to manage them, planting himself deeply in the hypothetical. A couple of pages after the above passage, he contemplates the possibility of his apartment being burgled:

Inside, the thief would work fast, but he wouldn’t be able to get out the front door because it has an illegal lock that requires a key on the inside. He will have to pick up items and throw them (gently) out the window to his friend waiting on the platform. Then they will both have to jump down to the sidewalk and run. On one trip, they could carry a couple of thin computers and a flat-screen TV. If no one stops them, they can stash the first batch of stolen items in a fence’s warehouse and come back for seconds.

Now I understand the meaning of the title: In Rutkowski’s hypervigilant mind, it is always a question of look or leap. He must guess and check. And guess and check, again.

This is a rewarding read for anyone interested in family dynamics, or the challenges of coming of age and raising one’s own family in a big city, or who just wants a satisfying compilation of Rutkowski’s oeuvre. The long list of publication credits at the back of the book attests to the success of his “franchise.”

You can find the book here: http://www.givalpress.com.

Carol Wierzbicki’s reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail and American Book Review. Her work has been published in Long Shot, Public Illumination, Evergreen Review, Big Bridge, Many Mountains Moving, The Otter, and The Bug Book (Poets Wear Prada).

Seven Floors Up by Cati Porter

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By Stephen Page

Cati Porter’s Seven Floors Up is about wifehood, womanhood, and most expressively, adulthood.  Porter reveals in varied forms of verse the roles of a contemporary married mother.

            The narrator of the poems has a husband, two children, a cancer-ridden dog, a mother, a stepmother, a mother in law, and a couple of people in her extended family who are terminally ill.  She often reflects on how she got to where she is, and in her everyday occurrences she inadvertently divulges to the reader that being an adult means accepting responsibility and not showing that you are falling apart inside.  Protecting her children from every day scrapes and falls is big on her list of things to do.  To keep her life from getting heavy, she often looks for and finds the humorous things in her life.

This is a well-written book containing a good combination of serious and funny poems.  It is an interesting read for anyone.

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You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Seven-Floors-Up-Cati-Porter/dp/093241267X

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Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

Wolf Season by Helen Benedict

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Reviewed by Lynette G. Esposito

In Wolf Season, published by Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2017, Helen Benedict reveals lessons in interpersonal relationships of average people who have survived horrific war experiences.  Benedict addresses both the psychological and physical damages as well as changes inflicted on the survivors whose stories stay with you after you have finished reading the book.

Juney, veteran, Rin’s nine-year-old blind daughter, Tariq, son of Naema, the widow of an Iraqi war interpreter, and Flanner, son of a deployed marine, represent the innocent sufferers of wars from which their parents try to keep them safe. Beth, Rin, Naema, Todd, and Louis represent the damaged adults who try to protect the children from the aftermath reality of their complicated war experiences.  All the characters are well drawn and believable.  To accomplish this, Benedict follows the characters’ every-day activities of normal American living and their sometimes extreme reactions to seemingly simple things.

Rin, a widowed war veteran, tries to fulfill her husband’s dream of raising wolves in the woods outside of fictional Huntsville, New York.  Her PTSD and flashbacks from being raped by her comrades contribute to her paranoia and prevent her from normal interactions with other humans.  Naema, a doctor from Iraqi, tries to adjust to American life with her son who has lost his leg to a bomb in Iraq.  Beth, Flanner’s mother, suffers the loneliness of a deployed husband who comes back so changed, she believes he is two people—the before and after.  When a hurricane hits this small community, these characters are whirled in to a crazy soup that only mother nature can cook up.

The novel is divided into four parts each with a title that suggests the focus in each section. The wolves and other animals in the book provide a symbolic backdrop of interdependency on each other and the humans who love them.  Benedict’s use of nature and natural instincts gives readers a deep sense of what it takes to survive and the terrible toll war and loneliness extracts not only on those who go to war but also those waiting at home.

It is a good read and engaging on many levels.  It has a light touch of politics as all war stories do, but the focus is on the consequences to people and their stories of coping when back at home.

Benedict is a professor at Columbia University and is the author of seven novels. She has also written nonfiction and a play.  She currently lives in New York. For more information, visit www.helenbenedict.com .

You can find the book here: http://blpress.org/books/wolf-season/ 

 

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.

Home of the Brave – Stories in Uniform-Edited by Jeffery Hess

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By Stephen Page

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With Home of the Brave, editor Jeffery Hess puts together a collection of short stories about people in the U.S. military.  The period covered is from World War II to the present.  Although many of the stories refer to war, very few depict actual battles.

Let me reiterate that these are stories about people—humane stories, humanistic statements, reports about humanity.

This book will appeal to almost every reader, civilian and military alike.  Jeffery Hess does a fine job in choosing stories that have empathetic characters, hard-hitting human drama, and convincing plots.  The tales stick with you, the reader, long after you read them.   Some of these stories will shock you; some will hit you right where you live.

A portion of proceeds from each book sold is donated to USA Cares.

Read more about the book here: Home of the Brave

Read interviews with the editor: Mary Akers Blog

This book may be purchased here: Amazon 

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Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/