By Ray Greenblatt
Harriet Doerr (1910-2002) grew up and married in California. For nearly twenty years she and her husband ran a mining company in Mexico. In 1984 at the age of 74 she published her first book Stones for Ibarra, which won the National Book Award. Her third and final book, a collection of short stories, The Tiger in the Grass was published in 1995. This review will be a discussion of how effectively she developed setting and character and the essence of her philosophy after such a long and fruitful life. And she used poetic prose to accomplish that.
In the story LIKE HEAVEN the major character Elizabeth has returned to a town she had summered in for years. She wondered if her memories matched the reality of the place. “Beyond Elizabeth, the pink stucco post office was closing for the night. A border of nasturtiums erupted against its side in hot reds and lemon yellows, the intense shades that figure more often in memory than in fact. Elizabeth turned to face the ocean.” Doerr’s use of color is always vivid and varied, often using flowers to represent a particular hue.
“Life on the hill had not been flawless. Elizabeth vaguely recalled the occasional tears of children and slammings of adult doors. But the immense peace of the place drowned out these events, leaving only a shimmering calm behind. Under its protection, summer days could scarcely be told apart and ran together. So that, even while being lived, they had seemed eternal.”
Mexico plays an important role in Doerr’s life and writing. In the story THE SEASONS now in Mexico, color again plays a major role. “Yellow is the color of fall. The cottonwoods burn with it, and only flowers that are yellow go on blooming. At the edges of fields, against unmortared stone boundaries, in roadside ditches, grow all the wild daisies in the world.”
Sudden though infrequent storms punctuate the landscape. “When there is a storm, the thunder rolls up the mountain and down the cobbled street. It stifles the backfire of the passing truck and silences the church bell ringing for vespers. It mutters imprecations in the distance.”
“The lightning forks into an ash tree, into the windmill tower, and finally into the transformer, causing a power failure that may last all night. In the flash there is a second’s eternity of total exposure, the plow left in the furrow, the dented pot on the fire, the woman’s face in the cracked mirror.”
Some women in these stories are angry and depressed because they have not found who they really are, or in trying to live through their husbands the wives always come up short. Doerr can be very insightful focusing on one individual. In CARNATIONS Ann “lives with herself. They no longer speak. She can’t remember being shut away. Life, like a subway train, simply began to recede, taking the people she knew out of earshot. Either they have stopped listening or she has forgotten the words. In the case of Elliot, her husband, she is out of sight and sound. His eyes focus behind her and his voice is directed to one side. His arms do not reach through the unseen walls.”
On a car trip through Italy with her husband she sees a flower seller who becomes a symbol of what she desires. “Ann supposes that their fragrance hangs about him like incense. He is hatless and wears sandals. They are about to pass him. She hasn’t had time to say ‘Stop.’
Then, in an impact as clear and sudden as the clash of cymbals, Ann’s eyes meet the eyes of the vendor. Their smiles meet and fuse. The second is held in timeless suspension, like a raindrop on a spiderweb.
His arms, lifting the carnations like lanterns, are open in an encompassing embrace. They hold the terraced vineyards and the twisted pines, they hold the marble figures in the tapestried palace walls, the tile on hillside houses and the stone on Roman roads.” This man is so much a Christ figure; and the brilliant flowers again are so important.
Doerr is also effective at handling multiple characters. The story THE EXTINGUISHING OF GREAT-AUNT ALICE offers us several. “Weeping. It seemed chronic rather than acute, a way of life rather than a trauma.” Alice is old and sad but still retains a vigorous imagination. She shares “the same crystal vision” with her great-niece, eleven-year-old Elizabeth.
“Elizabeth brought strange maps she had drawn of India, France, and Peru, striped with rivers, crocheted with mountains, shaded with forests, dotted with wheat, rice, and corn, red-circled with capitals, and all bounded by shores of a thousand parentheses.”
We meet a kaleidoscope of people, old and young and in between. Alice’s middle-aged son Theo has not found himself and is trying to fit in socially. “He had made a thorough search of the anniversary classes and encountered only eight alumni of his year, all so altered by time and varying levels of despair that none recognized the others.”
Among these uncertain souls stands a solid citizen. “The driver of the station wagon wore thick brown-rimmed glasses and a lime-green pantsuit. She had planted both feet on the ground when she was one and a half, and an aura of common sense hung about her like the aroma of wholesome food. Today she had realized at once that she must pilot the rudderless into safe waters, and set off with purpose and without surprise.” A few strokes by a skilled writer fully rounds a character.
Some Mexican characters are distant as in the story WAY STATIONS. “There was something in the old woman’s blackbird eyes, something about her slippered feet set parallel on the floor, that discouraged intimacy.”
Others are more outgoing as in SUN, PURE AIR, AND A VIEW. “’Consider this, senora,’ Carlos said, and from the edge of the terrace where they stood, he embraced the landscape, drawing to him the municipality of Santa Felicia, the presidencia, the cathedral, and the zoo, as well as all the plowed and wooded world beyond.”
And in what I think is the most shocking story in the collection, ironically SAINT’S DAY, we see tragic individuals. “Remembering the annoyances that have plagued his life, along with the great injustices, he allows rage to possess him, lets it burn hot and blind and pure, until at last he strikes the back of the bench and bloodies his good hand.”
His wife has been traumatized to near immobility. When her son Paco asks her for help, “she neither looked at him nor moved from where she sat on
the edge of the bed, her elbows on her knees, her thin fingers pressed to her eyes, rocking back and forth, as if the rocking itself might serve for something. As if it, more than tears, might speak for her.”
Paco is still a fanciful little boy. Strangely he reminds me of the little boy from John Updike’s short story You’ll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You. Both boys love the thrill of the carnival. However, Updike’s character has the entire world ahead of him to look forward to. Paco is from a distressed environment without much hope for the future. His immediate goal is to ride on the carousel. “Now, for five minutes, Paco is a child without past. This interval contains his whole life. So his day ends almost as he had planned, riding a horse to music under stars.” Meanwhile, his sister is being raped by the father.
So many of these stories, and so many of these events that I believe actually happened to Harriet Doerr are involved with memories. Her five senses enable her to call up actions that occurred seventy-five years before. She remembers the walls of their house from A SLEEVE OF RAIN. “You knew them best by touching them, by moving along the half-finished wall, your hand sliding from one rough surface to the next. Dry, hard, complex, indifferent, they were the fiber of your world.”
She claims that she does not clearly know why these memories are dear to her, but I can guess that they recall when her family was close and solid.” Years later and possessing at last the long view, I cannot say whether I touched the wood to claim the house, to establish a connection, or simply for the sake of the shingles themselves, to feel their texture, to smell forest.”
It is an extreme advantage for a writer to have such vivid recall, especially of such positive moments in one’s life. From LOW TIDE AT FOUR: “Back on the beach, our heads under the umbrella, we lie at compass points like a four-pointed star. The sun hangs hot and high. Small gusts of wind lift the children’s corn-straw hair. We taste salt. Face down, arms wide, we cling to the revolving earth.”
The child sometimes feels the center of the universe, but an author can achieve great power of creativity with this feeling. “I call up my interior reserves and gather strength from my blood and bones. Exerting the full force of my will, I command the earth to leave off circling long enough to hold up the sun, hold back the wave. Long enough for me to paint and frame low tide.”
Harriet Doerr facetiously states that in a writing class she took “all we wanted was the perfect word in the perfect sentence that, when multiplied, would fill the pages of the perfect book.” It is what all writers hope. A symbol for her was THE TIGER IN THE GRASS. A writer must persist through all uncertainties, all fears to achieve the best writing that she can. “I think of what it is like to write stories. It is a completion. It is discovering something you didn’t know you’d lost. It is finding an answer to a question you never asked.” Through her writing Harriet Doerr found her true self. Considering her style I am surprised that she never wrote poetry.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Tiger-Grass-Stories-Other-Inventions/dp/0140251480
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.
By Charles Rammelkamp
From the emphatic denial implicit in the title – NO is short for New Orleans, but the negativity is no coincidence – it’s clear the three novellas that make up this wonderful, lyrical, earthy book are full of a sense of loss, ranging from the elegiac to the tragic. The narrative focuses on Keller Hardy and Henry Gereighty, two gay men who live in the twilight of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. Both are on a quest for love and self-discovery, the metaphor of a seafaring Odysseus-like voyage applicable to both. Indeed, the title of the first novella, which focuses on Keller, In Irons, is a nautical term, which basically means “going nowhere.” Like Odysseus leaving Ithaca for Troy and returning twenty years later, The City of NO begins in My Enemy’s Dog Pub in the French Quarter, where Keller Hardy is a bartender, and it ends in the same place, Henry Gereighty having returned from his own travels to New Orleans. What happens in between is the journey of discovery.
Keller’s story takes place over two years, beginning in 2010 and concluding in 2012. The story takes place in the wake of “The Catastrophe,” Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the city. “The Catastrophe forced an entire region of people to recreate themselves.” Keller’s recreation is compounded by the fact that he is gay.
The wind and sea exposed what he had buried in sacred ground after having become known as a gay man. In the beginning what that meant for him was throw-away employment. Keller and all the survivors like him had eclipsed into Throw-Away People and there was a shift that ran them all underground. In the wake of The Catastrophe in the City of NO Keller’s contributions to the reconstruction were pouring liquor, opening bottles, and talking: bartender….
He flees the city in his boat, the Merlin, named after the sorcerer, and much of what happens to him in his subsequent travels to South Carolina and Florida feels magical, surreal: metaphorical. The shark attacks are one, “for hunters, like killers, are cosmically united.” His wanderings seem futile, frustrating, and by the end, when he is returning to the City of NO, he is pursued by a Great White shark, obsessed and thwarted as Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby-Dick. Does Keller live? Does he commit suicide? Is he drowned? The end of In Irons feels ambiguous, but then we switch focus to Henry Gereighty.
Henry’s story widens the scope. He is the protagonist of the next two novellas, Henry Gereighty and Storage. Henry appears to be five or ten years older than Keller, who is 41 when his story ends. For with Henry, a playwright who originally came to New Orleans to find himself (inspired by Tennessee Williams), we learn about The Genocide.
In the 1980s the President of the United States committed an act of Genocide against the gay community, declaring war not only on a generation of men given a death sentence, but on an entire generation of children discovering who they were. Henry was taught to hate himself; existing in Survivor Mode, navigating a violent Christian occupation that kept him isolated and in fear of all the things he was.
Henry, too, is in search of love and acceptance. He grew up queer in a small Tennessee town, feeling so alone and “wrong.” He fled to New Orleans. “The City of New Orleans taught Henry Gereighty how to be gay. Then, despite the Southern world that questioned his existence, he taught himself how to be a playwright.” Then came Katrina.
In the first novella, we encounter Henry groping his way through existence, giving up on being a playwright – though he has had several plays successfully produced. He encounters various people in bars and “out in the country,” from Frankie St. Pierre to an unnamed lawyer to a rock-throwing gimp, having sex and getting drunk. By the end, in an internal debate, he concludes, “You have to reinvent yourself.”
The next novella, Storage, is the reinvention. It begins with a quick scene from 1983, Henry virtually kicked out of the small town by his father for being gay, but then it’s 2009 and Henry is returning home to Tennessee (his “roots”?) to help his ailing father die. There is so much compassion and forgiveness here that it kind of emphasizes the pointlessness of the father’s bigoted hatred in the first place. In one telling passage, Henry advises another smalltown gay man, Will, to move to Atlanta, where there is a thriving, supportive gay community, but Will resists, wary of going to ”an enclave.” With resignation, Will says that he has “adapted” to his home. Henry objects. “If for no other reason you can always find someone like you to not be alone with. Here, in places like this, you’re always alone. Always.”
Henry’s father Eustus does die, and though Henry bas done nothing but comfort the old man, the effect is nevertheless liberating.
He could smell true freedom then for he understood the exorcism. “You’re gone now, daddy. Now it’s just me.”
For the first time in his life, Henry Gereighty was not governed by regrets, and he only dreamed of possibility, even in the face of loneliness.
And then a few days later, back in the City of NO, Henry goes to My Enemy’s Dog Pub, and the reader will need to read this for him- or herself to appreciate the full effect.
The City of NO is such a powerful, lyrical, melancholy book whose impact will remain with the reader for some time.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1938144708/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was published by Future Cycle Press. Most recently Catastroika was released by Apprentice House in 2020.
You can find the book here: Winter Honeymoon | BLP
By Greg Bem
“We’re all working hard every day on composing seventeen or so words that will decorate our headstones.” (from “Bitter Pills,” page 41)
Thomas Walton’s a poet’s poet. But not only in the ways you might think. He writes poems with allusions, with complex symbols, and with a literary imperative, but his writing also expresses a more automatic, emergent language, a language reflecting a growing relationship with the surrounding world. And Walton’s latest book is a poet’s book that captures this, but it’s also difficult to pin down, challenging to categorize and understand, as we are sometimes wanting to do with poetry. All the Useless Things are Mine—the title is bearably funny while also being deadpan. When it comes to the poems, this is a collection with a name fittingly accurate and inaccurate all the same—there’s a lot here, and it might be useless, and it might be useful, but to Thomas, it’s a matter of taste and curiosity, the poet finding their self and their voice emerging from a world that is inconsequentially available.
Let’s step back. Let’s see this availability in form. The book, on the surface, is a collection of Thomas’s 17-word aphorisms, loosely packed and fitting nicely into rigid and flexible sequences of theme. Thomas is following up last year’s investigation of marriage failings, dutiful fatherhood, and a relentless commitment to Gertrude Stein, The World Is All That Does Befall Us (Ravenna Press, 2019), and the previous year’s collaborative investigation of art history in Rome, The Last Mosaic (with poet Elizabeth Cooperman, Sagging Meniscus Press, 2018). To say Thomas is on a roll would be underwhelming; Thomas’s newest release flows (or stems) from both of his predecessors. Each aphorism is a statement. It harkens to the lyrical essay. But each aphorism lives on its own in a slightly more liberated (open?) circumstance.
“Concentration is a kind of levitation, and when you’re in the clouds it’s easy to love indiscriminately.” (from “All Poets Are Lunatics,” page 63)
The titles of each sequence, each “poem,” tend to be wayfinding tools if anything. Each adds subtext to the aphorisms within. “At the Crack of Up” and “All Poets Are Lunatics” and “I Guess I Don’t Travel Much” are a few examples of Walton’s layering of humor. “Love and Sex” and “Birdsong” and “The Afterlife” balance things out. And this is a book of balance, despite its sprawl and flexibility. The poems are compacted nicely into a book that feels nice. Like the others mentioned above, this collection is also a relatively small physical shape. It can fit in most pockets. It can be pulled out and examined in a flash, or a breath, and repocketed for future engagement.
Or, for readers like myself, it is a book of deception. The book feels small, but the print is as well. And the aphorisms keep on coming. I devoted an entire evening to reading it—and it took the entire evening! Such is the way of Walton’s latest works, which drag and twirl mesmerizingly. The lack of any narrative structure, any overall argument, entraps the reader further. Stepping into All the Useless Things are Mine is a visit to the poppy field, a long beach with ceaseless tidal crashings, a labyrinth not of “how” or “why” but of “when.”
Time, duration, mortality—the nature of our beating hearts—these qualities blossom within this text through the inclusivity of Douglas Miller’s etchings and drawings. The images are straightforward—household objects, animals, insects, trees—each page-long visual is presented in stark black and white. The materials used feel rough and emergent. There is a flow to the scrapes and scratches upon the page. Some images feel rough, even resembling drafts through the presence of outlines. But the they are also hardly such; as documents of the creative process, Miller’s visuals resemble the fixity of Walton’s seventeen-word form. Whether they contain everything or only part, they are complete and gorgeous. The sense of emptiness, of incompleteness, juxtaposed with the reality of finality instills a haunting (or chilling) effect: it is existential. This is what we have, and this is when we have it—the now, the immediate, the temporary.
“I walked out with her, looking hard at things, hoping to break into living with my eyes.” (from “Do Your Job,” page 26)
The temporary is linked through the visual, and the visual is mighty in Walton’s aphorisms. It is a construct, a poet’s world, remembering, assembling, forever revisiting. It is moving; this poet’s world is a space, a field, ever-expanding and ever-enveloping one and the same. What often does not translate into a book-length work, which is often confronting form on a large scale, with distinct purpose and message, is how that world’s expansion and envelope is fluid and in flux. Walton’s previous works alluded to the phenomenon of the everyday poetic practice, and All the Useless Things are Mine dives right in. While not a daybook or journal, it still reminds us that the notes, the scrawl, the scribbling existed to lead into the book. There are roots. There is the prototypical core.
Intimately, Walton’s latest work allows the reader to feel like we’re walking down the block, resting in the park, holed up under some bushes in a garden, or off in some shadowy nook of a house. But not to linger—to merely capture the moment, to create a literary impression—and then to move on. Walton’s work is once again spirited, and balanced within the two covers that hold it close. And yet the fluidity and sprawl of the world Walton has documented, like the haiku of Matsuo Bashō, the walking poems of Frank O’Hara, or the contemporary American Sentences of Paul E. Nelson, insists on the “something more” of process, of origins, and of linearity’s charm.
You can find the book here: https://www.saggingmeniscus.com/catalog/all_the_useless_things_are_mine/
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 gregbem.com.
By g emil reutter
Xanadu Books released the 2nd edition of Party Everywhere by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright this past February. This 34 page poem coupled with color collages developed by Wright is simply a stunning presentation. Representative of the eventworks movement, Wright’s collaboration with Barbara Rosenthal creates an experience that not only has words jumping off the page, but images upon images to highlight the journey of the “me” character central to the poem. Wright’s work is a natural maturation of the “futurism” movement into the present and evolving world.
The use of brilliant colors, various fonts of text throughout the poem reflect quiet conversation morphing to loud conversation. There is always the “me” inviting the reader to meet in an entertaining repetitiveness throughout the odyssey. A careful study of the collages will reveal the main character, “me”, is in most every sequence.
Wright calls out to the reader, “work hard and play fair.” It is something you will want to do after reading Party Everywhere, and in this time of covid there is a foreshadowing as Wright calls out “party in your underwear.” Why not, who the hell will know!
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Party-Everywhere-Jeffrey-Cyphers-Wright/dp/0976079399
g emil reutter can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/
You can find the book here: https://rosemetalpress.com/books/audubons-sparrow/
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf