book review

Canción by Eduardo Halfon Translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn

cancion

By g emil reutter

Canción is the title of Eduardo Halfon’s latest release. Canción is also the kidnapper of his grandfather during the 1960’s and is the centerpiece of the narrator’s quest to find out why. Yet the story opens in Tokyo at a Lebanese Writers Conference. The narrator tells the story of his Lebanese grandfather, who is not Lebanese but Syrian, for Lebanon did not exist yet. Halfon establishes a bond with his Japanese host, whose grandfather survived Hiroshima. Canción weaves a tale of family, of violence, of fear, of travels, of liberation.

The character development is excellent, such as grandfather; Uncle Salomón; and the sleeping and sick, NoNo snoring. Salomón is reading Turkish coffee grounds when the soldiers arrive at their Guatemalan City Mansion to inform the grandfather that they located one of the men who had kidnapped him in 1967. It is here the narrator begins to piece together the long search to his grandfather’s history, coupled with the violent and fearful past of Guatemala, its civil war, and uncertainty. The violence of the Kaibiles is graphically detailed in the slaughter of an entire village, as well as the role of “Beni,” who is an enforcer for his grandfather. Beni, a Kaibile, was at the village slaughter.

The Halfon families shifting geographical locations from Syria to Europe to New York to Guatemala to Israel and to Japan contribute to the shifting of this story in a positive manner. A family with boundaries, yet without boundaries who maintain their faith and wealth.

Along the way we meet a beauty queen, model-handsome ambassador, bartenders, and characters of the night. Then there is Canción, the butcher, who we hear tales about and yet never meet nor does the narrator in his search. In the end he does find out his destiny.

Canción brings us into the violence of 1960’s Guatemala, not only through the violence of rebels and the government, but through the eyes of a family entwined in the midst of it all. It is a story of violence yet in the end it is a story of redemption.

You can find the book here: https://blpress.org/?post_type=product&p=5063

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories and on occasion literary criticism. He can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/ 

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Peripheral Debris by Carl Kaucher

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Channeling the mystical meandering jazz bebop philosophical musings of Jack Kerouac, Carl Kaucher’s new collection focuses on the gritty and ponders the eternal questions of existence.  At the end of the first poem, “Pond Scum,” he asks:
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If life is God’s music
will the chorus end with a round of applause
for a song well sung
or will there just be silence?
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Meanwhile, in his elegy for a dead friend, “Steve,” he asks, “How many bites to eat a Big Mac?” Kaucher isn’t always so serious!
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Peripheral Debris is divided into two parts, “Peripheral” and “Debris.” While both evince Kaucher’s distinctive style, the poems in the first part mainly seem to develop his outlook while the poems in the “Debris“ section are a kind of travelogue through small town Pennsylvania, from the perspective of the self-described “Hobo Poet” whose attitude the reader has since come to understand.
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Indeed, the poem, “Kerouac,” from the first section, honors his inspirations.
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Beating loud
the bongos of suffering
so that
we might feel the rhythm
and vibrations at a distance
not going near
but knowing still
all dimensions
of the deep discordant drum
drubbing of desolation
the shamanic inflection
angelic resurrection
and insight
of the human predicament
on the down and out
with dissonant choruses
to wallow in
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The poem “November,” referring to “an interstellar literature / written within the lunar wind,” concludes with an homage to Patti Smith, from her iconic 1975 album Horses, “weeping for somebody’s sins / but not mine.” The poem, “The Deep State,” honors William Blake.
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The cleverly titled poem, “Postpoemed,” summarizes Kaucher’s approach. It begins:
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Take a few scattered words,
assemble them into a thought
which can be woven
into the finest threads.
Weave the thread into a tempo and flow
that creates a vision,
an intricate web of idea
to paint a portrait of conditions
and circumstance.
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For four more stanzas he describes the recipe – “Introduce the characters”; “Get lost within the flow / and feel the fuzzy vibration of energy”; “Whisper the words down the alley / so they twist and distort / like an effluent prophecy.” The poem, he hopes, will “provide warmth / to all who have gathered / throughout the long night.”
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While Kaucher sets the poem, “Snakes and cats” from the “Peripheral” section in Reading, Pennsylvania (“at the corner of 11th and Robeson streets”), it’s mainly in the “Debris” section that he takes us through the Pennsylvania countryside, in poems like “Johnstown,” “Shillington” (birthplace of the novelist John Updike),  “Shamokin,” “Sunbury,” “Tamaqua,” “Wilkes-Barre,” “Carlisle,” “York,” “Manayunk,” “West Scranton,” “Reading,” and “Altoona” – not to mention poems like “Road Ruminations” (“Towns like Tipton and Tyrone, / Bald Eagle and Port Matilda”) and “Perspectives of Butch” (Schuykill County).  It’s a peripatetic life, the observations and experiences of a holy mendicant wandering from town to town. In the poem, “In,” in West Chester, having returned east from Pittsburgh, he meets a young man in a bar.
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            I tell him about the Beats and Kerouac
            and how inspiration and appreciation of the beauty
            factors into achievement,
            also commitment and WOW!
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He’s like the wandering Zen master enlightening the populace. In the poem “Hobo Poet” he writes:
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            Sleeping on the street corner
            doesn’t seem to get you closer to God.
            Although, cold wet asphalt
            and a curb to rest my head
            may be the start of this poem.
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Back in the first section, in the poem, “First light,” we find him waking up on one of those obscure street corners:
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            Ascend to obscurity blessed
            till the blackness rolls golden gardens
            of dawn born in detachment
            and the essence of the void
            rolls out divinity on Christ tongues
            and enlightened Buddha drugs
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            I forever am revelation
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Indeed, the narrator seems to embody an enlightenment that he doesn’t necessarily always share as he makes his way from town to town.
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Peripheral Debris is full of Kaucher’s somber photographs – bridges, graveyards, kitchens, a bleak apartment, a lone seagull, downtown squares, a young woman’s tattooed back, abandoned houses, coin-op laundromats, an angel statue in silhouette. These atmospheric graphics enhance the sense of solitude that’s at the heart of these poems.
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The second section – and the book itself – ends in Altoona, a town in the middle of the state that was founded by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1849, from its very beginning a stopover on the way to elsewhere.  As always, the poet is observing, experiencing his environment. On the wrong side of the tracks, a homeless guy starts shouting at him, asking for the time. The narrator moves on. With a sly reference to Petula Clark’s 1965 hit song, he goes “downtown / to forget all my troubles, forget all my cares.” He encounters another anonymous citizen of the town, a suspicious woman in neon green slippers, as he scribbles “about the horse fly / bussing my head.”
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            After a while,
            I was only as I am
            and again on my way
            home.
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Wherever that is. Whatever “home” signifies, a place, a state of mind.
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You can find the book here: Peripheral Debris
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

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Head-On by Rich Youmans

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By John Zheng 

Rich Youmans’s Head-On is a fine, hand-sewn collection of 13 well-crafted haibun stories, each presenting an exquisite part strung together like sequences.

The title poem is about a couple driving one evening on the back road to the concert, but “the slow procession of cars” ahead of them “stretches through deepening twilight.” Youmans is good at describing the situation they are trapped in and using the couple’s dialogue as different responses to the slow traffic. While the husband mutters “Oh God,” the wife guesses, “Accident, maybe road work” Then the husband sounds a bit anxious, uttering “An hour at least.” Ironically, on the opposite lane, “white headlights rush them from around the bend—prisoners set free, running wild eyed into the night.” The metaphoric comparison enriches the poetic quality of this haibun. Then the haiku following the first paragraph complements the image of “white headlights” and extends what the husband sees in the side view mirror by juxtaposing the fading and flaring taillights with the steady star in the sky:

taillights fade

and flare . . .

            one steady star

The poet is skillful in using the concrete description to suggest the growth of anxiety. As the headlights behind them accumulate, and the situation becomes a stain on the whole wonderful day spent joyfully doing morning chores, watching the Red Sox game, and having a favorite dinner, the husband sounds even more impatient, “This is ridiculous.” Yet, the procession of cars barely crawls, and twilight fades into sparse stars. Forty minutes later, they just round the bend where they notice the accident suggested in the second haiku (“red lights beating / through soft pine—/ his pulse”), followed by a more vivid description of the tragic scene: “a station wagon, its front end nearly gone, its entire windshield burst; glass glitters across the blacktop as if all the stars had dropped. A rear door is open; near it, three white-shirted medics huddle over a sheeted figure.” Yet, the more tragic spot about this head-on is pointed to by the wife—

by the bright flare

a child’s sneaker,

its laces still tied

—which leads to an imagined detail of what has happened to the family in the accident. The couple seems to have a mood switch. The man is no longer concerned about the concert; instead, he keeps his eyes wide open on the road, and even “the insects flicking through the headlight beams” cannot escape his concentration. The wife “no longer hums her favorite Bach. They feel the pain of head-on. There comes a sudden realization of the importance of life, togetherness, and consciousness of each other, as shown in their hand touch.

“Odds” is again a poem about the tragic head-on. The title is proper as it is an odd thing that a small plane made an emergency landing on the highway and hit a minivan. The poem starts and ends with a one-line haiku respectively, each having a star image. In the first one, the star, which means the first morning light, is also the last wish to hold probably for the pilot and the van’s passengers. The second haiku functions like a continuation of the first haibun as if after the concert, while “taking the backroad home,” the man sees a single star that keeps pace or that reminds him to drive carefully. The prose part, however, weaves the persona’s breakfast cooking and his associative thinking of odd things coming to his mind one after another to reveal his psychological activity, thus establishing the conflict between the quiet breakfast time and the more stories of odd deaths flashing back.

The third haibun starts the poem itself with the title, which uses the concluding sentence “you cannot turn.” Since the ending doesn’t have a period, the word “turn” has a double meaning: The driver cannot turn to look at the person who taps on the window at the end of the poem nor can he turn the key in the ignition. Therefore, the ending without a period leaves a question to the reader about what has happened to the driver. In other words, it leaves a space for imagination to fill in, like the technique of empty space used in Chinese painting. Also, this shows how Youmans is good at crafting his title. He must know that a good title not only corresponds to what is presented in prose and haiku but also introduces the reader into the poem with a curious approach.

Stylistically, this poem uses flashbacks to connect the present situation to what happened in the past. The driver, who may be drunken or lost in the painful thought on a rainy night, recalls the woman he fell in love with at first sight when he sees in the rearview mirror “the starblue neon of the bar” where “her moss-green eyes” met his head-on.

Another stylistic technique that distinguishes this poem is that Youmans groups three one-line haiku together to highlight the romance of the two lovers:

      small talk   she turns all the loose change heads up

      shoulder to shoulder   sound of ice settling in her glass

      last call   her perfume and the stars lead you home

Then the vivid description of the time spent together leads to a surprise: another head-on which occurred after a drink one night at the bar: “in a single missed turn, all the lines were crossed and her hand slipped free.” Again, Youmans groups three one-line haiku to highlight the crash:

windshield   through a jagged hole, night rushes in

on your tongue   the taste of iron and her name

after the funeral   all the ceiling cracks lead nowhere

The two kinds of head-on, though the poet does not specify the second, seem to serve as suspense. The romantic head-on keeps the reader interested but leads to an unexpected, tragic head-on. The next characteristic is that Youmans uses no uppercase letters in the title and at the beginning of each sentence. His intention, I guess, is to keep a smooth flow of the story woven with flashbacks.

Also, one prominent characteristic of Head-On is the use of one-line haiku. Out of 38 haiku, 25 are one-liners. Some of Youmans’s haiku serve as both preludes and postludes, as in “Odds” and “Long After Eye Surgery, the Blind Woman Daydreams,” some as interludes, as in “you cannot turn” and “Depth Perception,” and the rest of them as interludes and postludes in the traditional way, as in the other 9 haibun.

Another impressive technique is the memorable, metaphoric comparisons. In “Head-On,” “glass glitters across the blacktop as if all the stars had dropped;” in “you cannot turn,” “her eyelids snapped shut, quick as a lizard’s;” in “Finding Bach in the Pine Barrens,” points of light of the house lamps behind trees are fireflies; and in “Dance with Me,” the “shoulder aches like a bad tooth.”

Youmans is an excellent storyteller. His stories, though short in one or four paragraphs, are full of details, concrete descriptions, vivid visual images, surprises with aha moments, and suggestions. In a word, Head-On deserves a reading head-on.

You can find the book here: https://m.facebook.com/redbirdchapbooks/photos/head-on-haibun-stories-by-rich-youmans-is-now-availablein-these-haibun-stories-r/2085064558254634/

John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.

The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli Translated by John Taylor

butterfly book

By g emil reutter

John Taylor has once again opened the door to the mind and works of Franca Mancinelli. The use of complex, creative metaphors throughout the collection encompasses the use of forms, of the here and now and the invisible.

We enter An Earthquake Story in a home with two young children playing, using the home as a playground and both are rather tranquil.  Mancinelli then brings us into the quake:

One afternoon, while they were playing in the room between the yellow floor tiles and the sofa, a dark silhouette sounded the alarm, shouting: “The children! The Children are here!” Wearing her black, flowered apron, their grandmother came back to utter these words in a tone that became more shrill, pleading. Following the wake of the call, the two siblings were drawn to the parallele-piped of the hallway, where vast movements were making the air shake and tilting the walls from one side to the other. The children stopped between the panels of a glass door that created a sort of anteroom, from which they could watch. At the other end of the hallway, their father and mother were fighting. Shaken at its foundations, the world was trembling. 

An amazing piece of writing. The peaceful beginning and then suddenly air shake, tilt, shaken foundations, world trembling in the world of the two children. A masterful presentation of the effect of domestic violence on young children.

In the piece, The Little Girl Who Learned to Fly, Mancinelli opens with:

A bird kept alighting on the windowsill and pecking the panes with its beak, brushing the glass with its wings, and then flying off. The rustling and the small beating sounds it made seemed letters of an alphabet to be deciphered. 

Beating sounds as letters of an alphabet to be deciphered is such a fresh image. Later in the piece Mancinelli writes of a beautiful transformation:

The hair bulbs had become bone: small feathers were popping up, like those of a sparrow fallen from its nest. 

And following the transformation:

She stopped to look down at the garden, the house where she had lived, and headed straight for the blue. 

Beats as an alphabet, transition as a sparrow, and then escape.

In Walls, Rubble, bird metaphor reemerges and in Central Station, the train station speaks to her. Mancinelli uses language, extreme metaphor and imagery as a master craftsperson.

The Boy among the Rocks opens with a powerful descriptor that brings the reader directly into the piece:

Near the seaport of Gouvia there is a small beach from which one can see the profile of the island all the way to the city of Corfu; opposite, uninhabited and barren, the mountains on the Greek-Albanian border rise from the blue of the sea, their yellow-ocher dotted with a few scattered woodsy spots. It is a sandy strip covered with dry seaweed to which no tourists come, only a few locals. 

Later in the collection we pay a visit with, Living in the Ideal City: Fragments in the Form of Vision. In her vision, Mancinelli leaves little doubt that there is not an Ideal City. The poet tells us:

The darkness beyond the door and a growing fear could have gripped my body and kept me from moving, but it was impossible: my steps continued towards the center while my terror was blooming like a black flower.

And what awaits in the darkness?

A beast looks at you with its hollow eyes, awaits you, pretending to sleep: six large square pupils in a clear mellow sky that tells you not to believe in the darkness, not to be afraid.

And of the life force of the city:

The city keeps changing before your eyes, half revealing figures that it removes without your noticing. You don’t even notice how, after staying here, your gaze has now become different. Behind these lines is a force field. One single point, like the one at which your eyes sometimes inadvertently stare. 

Simply a masterpiece by Franca Mancinelli translated by John Taylor. The collection changes before your eyes, strong metaphor, imagery and while you read it you will not know that you too are transforming for your gaze will now become different.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Butterfly-Cemetery-Selected-Prose-2008-2021/dp/173465354X

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories and occasional literary criticism. He can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

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Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

snow

By Ray Greenblatt

Snow Country was written by Yasunari Kawabata in 1934 and translated into English in 1957. It is a story about a passionate affair between a wealthy young man and a geisha in training set in northern Japan. Komako the geisha cannot control her honest feelings, while Shimamura—despite his wife and children in Tokyo—cannot frankly face his deep feelings for her.

I – SCROLL PAINTING

A unique approach by Kawabata in telling this tale is structuring it like a scroll painting. Also, whatever the characters do is emphasized by the use of aspects from Nature. Needless to say, much poetic imagery arises. The author employs short sentences, even fragments, sometimes in short paragraphs to simulate brush strokes; the lack of chapters suggests an unrolling of the scroll itself. Here are some examples:

“ Children of the village were skiing in the fields.

As he started into the part of the village that fronted on the highway, he heard a sound as of quiet rain.

Little icicles glistened daintily along the eaves.” (49)

In many of these passages Shimamura is walking through a landscape of fields, forests and mountains, often covered by feet of snow in winter.

“In front of the cedar grove opposite, dragonflies were bobbing about in countless swarms, like dandelion floss in the wind.

The river seemed to flow from the tips of the cedar branches.

He thought he would never tire of looking at the autumn flowers that spread a blanket of silver up the side of the mountain.” (90)

This was one activity when he was alone where Shimamura could emotionally lose himself in the beauty of nature. Music, as we shall observe, moved him also in that way.

“ Slender autumn grasses grew along the top of an earthen wall. The pale-yellow plumes were at their most graceful, and below each plume narrow leaves spread out in a delicate fountain.

Yoko knelt on a straw mat beside the road, flailing at beans spread out before her in the sunlight.

The beans jumped from their dry pods like little drops of light.” (109)

You can imagine these various parts of the scene placed in a scroll painting that depicts people embedded deeply in Nature.

2 – THE GEISHA AND THE MAN

Komako dominates the novel. She is a very talented young woman: she can sing, dance and play the samisen. Besides being beautiful, she shows intelligence in knowing the history of Japanese theater. Another attribute is her complete honesty and lack of pretension.

Kawabata describes her in so many poetic ways: “In the moonlight the fine geisha like skin took on the luster of a sea shell.” (101) Her hair “glowed like some heavy black stone.” (39) What Shimamura liked best about her physically: “She must be clean to the hollows under her toes.” (18)

Sometimes a Japanese image jars us: “Her skin, suggesting the newness of a freshly peeled onion.” (73) “The bud of her lips opened and closed smoothly, like a beautiful little circle of leeches.” (32) And when she is distressed, “Komako’s face floated up like an old mask.” (168)

She is obviously in love with this man: “The naked heart of a woman calling out to her man.” (34) “Soft and yielding as if she were offering herself up.” (38) “She curled up like a little child, and grabbed at the neck of his kimono with her two fists.” (64) “Then, like a glow that breaks into a flame, the smile became a laugh.” (114) Shimamura saw her in a mystical way: “He was taken with the fancy that the light must pass through Komako.” (54)

However, there is tension between them: “She seemed on edge, like some restless night beast that fears the approach of the morning.” (47) “It was as though a strange, magical wildness had taken her.” (47) She knew how much she was risking: “She folded her arms like a bar over the breast he was asking for.” (35) “She bit at her sleeve as if to fight back the happiness.” (37) “She seemed ill at ease, like a young woman, still childless, who takes a baby up in her arms.” (146)

She gives so much more to him than he can reciprocate:” Like a warm light, Komako poured in on the empty wretchedness that had assailed Shimamura.” (62) “A childlike feeling of security came to him from the warmth of her body.” (146)

“The woman’s existence, her straining to live, came touching him like naked skin.”

(128)

His problem is that he cannot see her as a real person, only a singular image. “But, drawn to her at that moment, he felt a quiet like the voice of the rain flow over him.” (41) “This sighing for the human skin took on a dreamy quality like the spell of the mountains.” (112) He has made her a part of nature; and he loves the music that she makes.

Komako plays for him: “A chill swept over Shimamura. The goose flesh seemed to rise even to his cheeks. The first notes opened a transparent emptiness deep in his entrails, and in the emptiness the sound of the samisen reverberated. He was startled—or, better, he fell back as under a well-aimed blow. Taken with a feeling almost of reverence, washed by waves of remorse, defenseless, quite deprived of strength.” (71)

3 – SYMBOLIC NATURE

Kawabata’s use of Nature can emphasize the most minute aspects such as a  moth: “The wings fluttered like thin pieces of paper in the autumn wind.” (90) Or grasses: “The kaya spread out silver in the sun, like the autumn sunlight itself pouring over the face of the mountain.” (93)

But in this northern region snow dominates: “The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth.” (44)  “From the gray sky, framed by the window, the snow floated toward them in great flakes, like white peonies.” (149) “Little needles of frost like isinglass among the withered chrysanthemums.” (76)

Trees play a large part in the scenery since vast forests still abound here. Branches ” looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends out, to make a terrible weapon for some god.” (30)”They came out of the cedar grove, where the quiet seemed to fall in chilly drops.” (119) “The house was old and decayed, like the pitted trunk of a persimmon.” (53)

You can see how the author ties Nature into the life of the people: “The innkeeper had lent him an old Kyoto teakettle, skillfully inlaid in silver with flowers and birds, and from it came the sound of wind in the pines.” (155) “The lines of the mountain and of the roofs on its slopes were floating out of the rain.” (38) “The low, dark houses along the street seemed to be breathing as they floated up in the light of the fire.” (170)

And then his view can become cosmic: “The stillness seemed to be singing quietly.” (30) “The light . . . flickered on and off as if crackling in the cold.” (45) “The moon shone like a blade frozen in blue ice.” (77) “The Milky Way came down just over there, to wrap the night earth in its naked embrace.” (165) A scroll painting would exist in a void if it did not have people and Nature combined.

You can find the book here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/snow-country-yasunari-kawabata/1002419138

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. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).

Lost Autographs by Peter Baroth

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By g emil reutter
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Released in 2015 by Moonstone Press, Lost Autographs by Peter Baroth is slated for a second printing. Baroth is known for his irony, hipster meets beat and blunt realism. So seven years after its release why should you pick up a copy? First of all because you didn’t get the first edition. Secondly, Lost Autographs is 94 pages of excellent narrative poetry coupled with amazing character development.
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Baroth a lawyer, artist, poet, musician, became a lawyer following in his Hungarian Grandfather’s foot steps. But tragedy is at the core of the poem, Grandfather:
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The Upright Dog by Carl Fuerst

upright

By Charles Rammelkamp

Structured around the twelve labors of Heracles, Carl Fuerst’s whimsical, Vonnegut-esque novel follows Henry Streator on the “quest” he has been assigned by his employer, Atlas Systems, but The Upright Dog also purports to be Doctor Emily Stebbins’ attempt to set the record straight on the mythological Greek hero. Indeed, after the twelve entertaining episodes in which we follow Henry’s travels and trials, the last quarter of the book consists of the scholar’s clarifying endnotes.

The twelve labors of Heracles were his punishment for killing his family, which he was tricked into doing by Hera, the queen of the Gods, Zeus’s wife. Heracles had gone to the Oracle at Delphi for guidance on how to atone for his sin. There, he prayed to the god Apollo for guidance. Heracles was told to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. During this time, he was sent to perform a series of difficult feats, or “labors.”

Henry’s own “labors” come in the form of assignments from Atlas Systems. They feel like mysterious scavenger-hunt clues. “My employer doesn’t care what hours I work,” he tells Dixon, the exterminator (“God, in his wisdom, gave us the fly, but then he forgot to tell us why,” Dixon cryptically recites, part of this novel’s wisdom.) in “The Third Labor: Heracles and the Stag of Ceryneia,” “As long as I complete the tasks they give me.”

Each chapter begins with a precis of the labor that is often a metaphor for that particular episode.   In “The Fourth Labor: Heracles and the Pig,” for instance, Henry’s cellphone buzzes with a text message from Atlas Systems, “Drv Nxh,” which he interprets to mean “Drive North.” Heracles’ fourth labor was to slay the Erymanthian Boar.  When Henry skids into a snowbank and calls it quits for the night, the hotel where he randomly lodges has already received payment from Atlas, as if fated. Henry befriends a pug named Mrs. Biscuits, who mysteriously has a tag around her neck that reads “Property of Henry Streator.” (Another tag around Mrs. Biscuits’ neck reads: “We know this is nonsense, but trust us – when this is all over you’ll see the point.”)

Atlas Systems arranges and pays for a ride to which Henry is summoned by the hotel clerk. He nods off in the cab only to hear an anxious voice on the taxi’s radio announce that she is “Dr. Emily Stebbins of the University of Wisconsin-Algona Astronomy Department” – the scholar behind the scholarly record that forms part of The Upright Dog! Only Henry wakes up, alone in the cab. Mrs. Biscuits is gone. He’s sad, of course, having become attached to Mrs. Biscuits, and a mysterious woman (could this be Dr. Stebbins?), reassures him: “at no point was that actually your dog.” On to the Augean Stables! A tad confused? The footnote is even more mystifying, a quotation from Euripides’ Alcestis. But trust Fuerst – you’ll see the point when the story’s over…or will you?

Not the least of the pleasures of this work, by the way, are these arcane tidbits in the scholarly notes, such as the etymological origin  of the word “karaoke” (“empty orchestra”), complete with Japanese ideograms. The endnotes are full of “Alternate Translations,” from Plutarch and Homer, Aeschylus, Pindar and Hesiod. Indeed, the epigraph to the entire book is from Hesiod’s Theogeny: “We know how to speak many false things, as though they were true, but we know, when we will, to utter true things.”

Do we ultimately see the point? The twelve labors of Heracles are usually cited as the experience of virtuous struggle and suffering which leads to fame and, in Heracles’ case, immortality. The labors themselves are often interpreted allegorically. By clearing out the Augean Stables, for instance, clearing out the mass of dung, he is said to clearing out the foulness that disfigures humanity.

By the eleventh labor – “Heracles and the Apples” – Henry has received a “certificate of achievement,” the kind of honorific “award” (in lieu of money) that organizations universally bestow on employees: “In recognition of outstanding effort at Atlas Systems.” Attaboy! He seems to be on the right road – metaphorically and literally.

In the endnotes, Dr. Stebbins explains to Henry that the Ancients’ concept of work was entirely different from modern views. This lesson is repeated for emphasis in the Epilogue

The “upright dog,” of course, is “man,” you and me and her and him; them and us. Henry is always on the road, driving, his “quest” a never-ending journey, which may be the ultimate metaphor, because “that’s what makes us human, and that’s what makes us gods, and that’s what makes us god-damned dogs.”

The Upright Dog is an ingenious puzzle, enchantingly Nabokovian in its construction (think: Pale Fire), but with a dark humor that, yes, does make one think of Kurt Vonnegut.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Upright-Dog-Carl-Fuerst/dp/B09R3HDX1S

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

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Dear Ted by Kim Vodicka

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By Greg Bem

Following on the heels of her similarly absurdist conceptual books  The Elvis Machine (Clash Books, 2020) and Psychic Privates (White Stag, 2018), Kim Vodicka’s latest collection of poetry is a hyper-focused menagerie of the grotesque and the unsettling. It is a book that examines violence and sexuality directly. It is a book that feels like it belongs in the True Crime section of Barnes and Noble, but could just as easily find a home among the trendiest young poets writing today. Dear Ted is not for everyone.

It is blunt in its descriptions of brutality and sexual extremes, and it is wholly unique in bringing them together through a hardened feminist stance. How far the reader makes it through the realized hell is reflective more on them than on the poet.

Our skeletal structures were too visible
beneath the skin.

Our skin was too tight.

Our bones were too revealing.

Our skulls didn’t smile enough.

(from DSM-69, page 69)

Here the Memphis-based Kim Vodicka writes bitter and witty missives into the void of Ted Bundy. Dear Ted is partially a book of anti-love poems, fueled by a feminist charge to explore and overcome the brutality of Ted Bundy’s serial murders of women. Vodicka brings an everyday approach to describing the murderer, acknowledging Bundy’s appearance of normalcy alongside the reality of his actions.

As described in these short but jabbing poems, the murderer feels like the archetypal foil to the poet, a wretch of masculine violence whose trail has long been forgotten to many. The poet’s mix of sardonic and empathetic responses linger. Vodicka raises questions through her a usual barrage of extremes and extenuations, which find solace and counterpoint through sexual kink and a mild perversion.

What greater torment than happiness?

Or the soothing sounds of a nervous breakdown.

What greater torment than trying too hard to make everyone happy?

Or the soothing sounds of losing to evil.

(from “Courtesy Flush,” page 92)

The book is divided into three “circles” (sections) including Circle of Mania, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. The book opens and closes with additional poems, both titled “How Do You Feel About Love?” which are each sequences of short fragments littered across the pages to form their whole. These clue in the reader, set the stage, and gently open a book that is concertedly powerful and distressing.

Stanzas like “Preciousness howls, / going nuclear” (page 21) in the book’s opening contains multitudes and little does the reader know what awaits them within the trilogy of circles. Similarly, closing lines like Frankenstein’s monster / tossing a little girl into the water, / just like a daisy.” (page 177) summarizes the speaker’s experience exploring relations and commitments with the killer.

Vodicka’s earlier works have been supported by similar feminist initiatives, and in Dear Ted we have a collection that feels complete. But it also feels long. The swelling of emotional difficulty (especially when the poet writes alongside Bundy’s image) is consistent to the point of incessance; and even in some instances the pieces themselves feel tired and repetitive. Still, Vodicka’s design reflects a very particular catharsis and writing through a serial murderer seems to make sense in this book of serialesque letters.

Now, I am a monster too.

A hypothesis proven.

A myth made manifest.

(from “Poetic Justice, “page 160)

If Vodicka’s aim is to overwhelm, to inundate, to bury the reader, she succeeds remarkably. The final section of the book, Circle of Blood, repositions the idea of the murderer, of the owner of violence, onto the speaker. In an act of absolute horror, the poetry describes an inversion that probably will shock and awe almost every reader.

Despite the occasional superfluous language and tones that often work against one another, Circle of Blood forms a stark and depressing yet effective conclusion that breaks the male gaze and the triumph of masculinity in murderer forms. This is poetry that feels unpolished and even sloppy on its surface, yet contains multitudes within. It may be that the reader does not last long enough to witness those multitudes within the book’s near 200 pages.

You can find the book here: https://rlysrslit.bigcartel.com/product/dear-ted-preorder-kim-vodicka

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

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Blue Electrode by Margaret Barbour Gilbert

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By Lynette G. Esposito
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Poetry is such a personal thing.  Margaret Barbour Gilbert’s Blue Electrode published by Finishing Line Press Georgetown, Kentucky, takes the reader on Gilbert’s journey of seizure and recovery. Her images reveal truths about the human condition.  In one moment, one is fine and in the next moment, one is on the floor.
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In her poem Aura on page two, she presents in two stanzas a vision of her waking:
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I felt like angels
were holding me up
when I woke this
morning.  I could see the grey sky
through the green trees
of my window pane,
the clear blue day,
the bright black
hair of angels.
It was as if
I were high above
the earth,
suspended,
riding
an angel’s wing
into the mirror
of my life.
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What an interesting way to wake up.  She has strong use of place and time in this poem and the awakening is common to all of us in how the first thing we see affects us.  She uses color effectively.  The poem is lean as if Gilbert took a surgeon’s instrument to it. It is not sentimental but displays observable images of a needed courage and a protection of an angel reflecting her life.
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Her title poem, Blue Electrode on page four, details her experience in having her brain wired to machines to discover why she is seizing.  She talks about a blue scarf she uses to hide the wires. The three stanzas in this poem are numbered as if to indicate stages of the procedure. At the beginning of the poem, she states:
At the moment, I am all wired up and
buckled into a $9,000 belt with tape recorder
–getting a 24-hour recording of my brain.
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Gilbert is again strong on time and situation. In the second stanza she talks of plastic flowers and graves and her mother thinks the words Epilepsy and Woe are synonymous.  While the mother’s visit may have been meant to be soothing, obviously not so much.
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In the third stanza (stage) she wraps a blue scarf around her head so she can go to the grocery without the wires showing or her hair that she relates to medusa snakes.  She describes the scarf as a gift her father wanted to give to her mother.  It has little flowers on it.  She sends the scarf to her mother but the last line makes so much clear to the reader.  She returns it.
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On page twenty-eight she presents her poem, Recovery.
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Long gowns lie in my arms like dead lovers,
corpses that nestle against my shoulder and climb
down my back like vines clinging to a trellis.
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In this poem she turns the gowns into taffeta and gathers them together in her arms.  It is as if she has taken back what she had lost.
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The book is slim—only thirty pages.  But this is powerful in situation and clear-sited images of what it is to suffer from a seizure disease.  It is well worth reading.
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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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