book review

The Liar’s Asylum by Jacob M. Appel

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By Lynette G. Esposito

The eight short stories in Jacob Appel’s Liars’ Asylum are amazingly fun to read.   The 168 page collection, published by Black Lawrence Press, explores common every day experiences with life twists that both surprise and confirm the human condition.

Appel is a keen observer of people interacting with their life situations.  John Jodzio, author of Knockout, comments,  ”I am in absolute awe of Jacob Appel’s Liars’ Asylum.  The stories here are magnetic and knowing, funny and inventive.  Appel is a master of form—deftly able to conjure up pitch perfect characters whose lips spill out both truth and wit.”  I agree.

In the story when Love Was an Angel’s Kidney on page 120, Appel narrates the story of a young eighth grader fascinated with a high school athlete who comes to her father’s camp for youth who need dialysis. The story, in true beginning, middle and end short story form, shows how love can happen and end anywhere. While the young girl would give up a kidney for her innocent love when she is skinny dipping with him in the camp lake, her financially inept father is losing the camp to the bank and his wife to his best friend.  Her father never finds another woman for whom he would sacrifice an organ, but she wonders about her young love and if he still thinks of her.   She asks:   Am I what remains when an angel’s kidney evaporates in the past? This is an interesting concept when looking at love itself as it fades into the past but remains in the heart.

In Good Enough for Guppies,  the story opens with Divorce infected the air last summer and Appel sets the scene for old women (78) seeking love in a variety of places all told from a candid observer who once in awhile participates in the story by suggesting the relationship he has with his own wife.  The narrator, Gene, and his wife, Shelia, must deal with Shelia’s mother, 78, marrying a man in his forties with a Bronx accent.  Shelia is almost hysterical because it is her mother and Gene attempts to understand survivorship in a long-term marriage.  The story suggests and shows average people reacting to love at various stages in their life and how they react as well as judge others outside and inside the family.

Appel is a master of unique and inventive story lines that are well controlled, developed and meaningful.  He sets clear scenes with unique twists that help the reader see and understand the characters in more than one perception and in more than one dimension.  I enjoyed every story.

The book is available here: https://www.blacklawrence.com/the-liars-asylum/

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.  Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review and other literary magazines. She has critiqued poetry for local and regional writer’s conferences and served as a panelist and speaker at local and national writer’s conferences.  She lives with her husband, Attilio, in Mount Laurel, NJ.

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A Brief Biography of My Name by Yalie Kamara

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By Michaiah Samples

A Brief Biography of My Name, Yalie Kamara, a Sierra Leonean American, explores the theme of self-discovery through a series of reflective poems by drawing from her past, her family’s experiences, and her cultural heritage.  Her words capture the joy and loneliness of trying to find one’s true self.  On the chapbook’s cover is a metal statue of a bare-chested, African woman, with a lifted chin and a proud stance.  This cover image reflects the determination needed to find one’s identity and the hard-won pride of its discovery.

She devotes her title poem to an exploration of her names, Yalie Saweda Kamara.  She uses beautiful imagery to capture not only the significance of her names but also the significance they have for her identity: “I wouldn’t have sought the sound of whiteness, / if I’d known I was a song strained from indigo. / a note wrapped in lapis lazuli.”  She even reclaims a lost name, Masuba, a name her grandmother took from her, and imbues it with her own meaning to complete the picture of herself.

In “Space” she writes about a time when she left off the “i” in her name on school assignments and no one noticed.  By the poem’s end, Kamara writes, “Nobody else played the game, so there’s no / record of the joyful sound that was made when / the long-lost me, found the small, brown, I.”  This clever twist at the end emphasizes the close connection between a name and an identity.  When she restores her name, she also restores her perception of herself with new significance.

In “Pest Control,” Kamara reveals the nature of liars and flatterers by comparing them to the long mot arata, a kind of rat that munches on the heels of sleeping people.  The story of the long mot arata teaches her “to doubt the admiration of anyone / who loves me without good enough reason / to look for punctured heels following any / explosion of praise leaving a familiar mouth.”  Kamara describes the pain of falling under their spell, “seeing a bit of myself hanging / from your smiling lips,” and also the triumph of moving past its pain to see that deceivers destroy themselves when they destroy others.

Yalie Kamara also draws from the words of her family.  “Mother’s Rules” is a tribute to her mother’s instructions on how to live.  Her instructions alternate between a sarcastic playfulness, (“Never order me a meal that is spelled with silent letters.  I came to eat, not / to explore”) and a hardness that reflects reality (“You laugh at me now.  Like I laughed at my mother”).  “I Ask My Brother Jonathan to Describe Oakland, And He Describes His Room” is a tribute to her brother.  The poem shows her brother “creating a new town” in his imagination, “where his body is unfettered by the terror of others’ imagination.”  Each of these glimpses into her family provide a place for Kamara to reflect on the lives closest to her, yet she does not directly connect them to her own search.  She allows the reader a clear view into her family, and she lets those poems stand alone because her family is part of her identity.

Through her poems, Yalie Kamara provides the reader glances into her journey of self-discovery.  Her beautiful imagery and her unflinching stance towards the pain of reality make this chapbook a necessary addition for anyone searching for their own selves.

You can find the book here:

https://www.yaylala.com/new-page/

Michaiah Samples is an undergraduate student at Lee University, where she is pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in English.  She has a forthcoming interview with Yalie Kamara on the website, Speaking of Marvels.  She likes to crochet scarves and study Hebrew in her spare time.

 

The Middle Ground by Jeff Ewing

middle ground

By Charles Rammelkamp

The characters in the nineteen stories that make up Jeff Ewing’s new collection, The Middle Ground, all seem to be trying to come to terms with bleak realities for which they bear some responsibility but whose fuzzy dimensions go way beyond their grasp. Indeed, as the story “Coast Starlight” begins: “Clifford could have been anyone, though no one from around here.”

In the story, Clifford, who may be a con man after all, fills a waitress’s mind with fantasies of movie stardom. Elena. Elena’s daughter asks her, “Don’t you wish something exciting would happen to you just once?” Elena remembers Clifford, then. Elena is married to the dull but reliable Matias. When she makes an impulsive trip to Los Angeles (aboard a train called the Coast Starlight) in a half-baked plan to pursue the dream of stardom, only to return to the stoic but forgiving Matias, you’d think there might be a moral here, like something out of The Wizard of Oz.  “No place like home.” But no, at the end Elena, if somehow wiser, is still indecisive, hovering ghost-like in the middle ground.

What is the middle ground? In the eponymous story, another one in which a parent and child clash over dreams, Ewing writes of the son, “He was one of those who can’t think any further than the negation of things. No nuance, no middle ground.” In the middle ground there are no clear answers to the situations people find themselves in. Maybe this, maybe that. Some of this, some of that.

Indeed, several of the characters in these stories deal with an unexpected celebrity that seems to shine a light on their lives, but only in a confused and upsetting way. The little girl Anna in “Lake Mary Jane” who is bitten by an alligator while she is swimming becomes a fleeting figure of interest, and she is forced to consider events in a new light. “When the gator had bit down, it was just a thing that was happening to her.” Then come the doctors, the reporters. Her dad and a character named Emily (mother? sister?) react in complicated ways. Finally, somebody shoots a gator in the lake they claim was the one that bit Anna. But her reaction? “All she knew was it had left its mark on her, which is what love does.”

In the first story, “Tule Fog,” the narrator remembers his high school girlfriend Lisa who became a celebrity of her own, giving motivational speeches, selling books and DVDs, on the subject of “Moving On.” She clearly moved on from the narrator, who feels stuck in his bleak California town where “no one anywhere, not even the dead, will wish they were here.” It should be noted that Lisa dies in an airplane accident near Lake Tahoe. “It took over a year for the wreckage to be discovered….”

Similarly, in “Coast Starlight,” as she’s finishing her shift at the diner, Elena comes upon another waitress, Shelly, flipping through a National Enquirer and, “tsking and shaking her head” at the shenanigans of the dubious famous people whose shenanigans are detailed in the scandal sheet.

“These people got everything you could want, and nine times out of ten they piss it away,” she said.

Elena asks her coworker, “You think it’s different here?”

“Jesus, yes. Are you kidding? Nobody’s got anything to piss away.”

It’s strange and perplexing how right there in the middle ground where nothing is clearly one thing or another how events will make you feel your insignificance. And certainly this seems to be the great challenge for so many of the characters in these stories, this urge for a meaning to one’s life. The very title of the final story in this collection, “Hiddenfolk,” gives a hint to the great trials most of these characters face. “Dick Fleming is Lost” gives another, a story in which the protagonist, George, becomes obsessed with the whereabouts of a former classmate, who has gone missing.  “Maybe Dick Fleming would be found,” the story concludes, “and maybe he wouldn’t. Either way he was no longer alone.”

The stories in The Middle Ground are bleak but thought-provoking and end with the same ambiguity with which they begin, though indeed there is always a kind of resolution. Nothing ever quite ends “happily ever after,” but the characters all reach a kind of self-understanding that makes their destinies easier to accept.

You can find the book here:

https://www.amazon.com/Middle-Ground-Stories-Jeff-Ewing/dp/1775381307

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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.

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The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth

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By Ray Greenblatt

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          Kenneth Rexroth was considered the senior member of the Beats. He was writing experimental free verse and lengthy exhortations to the world as early as the 1920’s, a generation before Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the West Coast poets.

          But I think he has been overlooked for his exquisite love lyrics. These poems are often set in the wildest of the back country. Let’s insinuate ourselves into these scenes of love to observe how Rexroth illuminates them:
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         You beside me
          Like a colt swimming slowly in kelp
          In the nude sea
          Where ten thousand birds
          Move like a waved scarf
          On the long surge of sleep. (“Camargue”)
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Rexroth loves to look minutely at his lover. Indeed she becomes part of nature:
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          Eater of moonlight, drinker
          Of brightness, feet of jewels
          On the mountain, velvet feet
          In the meadow grass, darkness
          Braided with wild roses, wild
          Mare of the horizons.
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          It’s enough that the green glow
          Runs through the down on your arms
          Like a grass fire and your eyes
          Are fogs of the same endless light.
          Let the folds and divisions
          Of your anatomy envelop
          All horizons. (“Air and Angels”)
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The following poem opens with imagery that Rexroth remolds in his conclusion:
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          Lean back. Give me your mouth.
          Your grace is as beautiful as sleep.
          You move against me like a wave
          That moves in sleep.
          Your body spreads across my brain
          Like a bird filled summer.
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          My eyelids sink toward sleep in the hot
          Autumn of your uncoiled hair.
          Your body moves in my arms
          On the verge of sleep;
          And it is as though I held
          In my arms the bird filled
          Evening sky of summer. (“When We with Sappho”)
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          Sometimes the locale shifts to a foreign city, but the intense sensuality remains:
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          Your face topples into dark
          And the wind sounds like an army
          Breaking through dry reeds.
          We spread our aching bodies in the window
          And I can smell the odor of hay
          In the female smell of Venice. (“Sottoportico San Zaccaria”)
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          At times Rexroth removes all censure so that our faces redden at the intimacy, as in “Floating”:
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          Take me slowly while our gnawing lips
          Fumble against the humming blood in our throats.
          Move softly, do not move at all, but hold me,
          Deep, still, deep within you, while time slides away,
          As this river slides beyond this lily bed,
          And the thieving moments fuse and disappear
          In our mortal, timeless flesh.
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The poet is also able to capture moments of a lover’s personality:
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          Suddenly you laugh, like a pure
          Exulting flute, spring to your feet
          And plunge into the water.
          A white bird breaks from the rushes
          And flies away, and the boat rocks
          Drunkenly in the billows
          Of your nude jubilation. (“Still on Water”)
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So many of his poems are like scenes caught by a painter—nuanced details, striking movements often in open air held fast in bright colors:
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          A fervor parches you sometimes,
          And you hunch over it, silent,
          Cruel, and timid; and sometimes
          You are frightened with wantonness,
        And give me your desperation. (“Between Myself and Death”)
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          As Kenneth Rexroth’s art matured, his view toward love developed deeper feelings and interpretations. In “Incarnation” after a day of climbing, the narrator returns to camp and glimpses his love in the distance:
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          The crinkled iris petal,
          The gold hairs powdered with pollen,
          And the obscure cantata
          Of the tangled water, and the
          Burning, impassive snow peaks,
          Are knotted together here.
          This moment of fact and vision
          Seizes immortality,
          Becomes the person of this place.
          The responsibility
          Of love realized and beauty
          Seen burns in a burning angel
          Real beyond flower or stone.
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The lover remembers all his past loves, the highs and lows:
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          Under this tree for a moment,
          We have escaped the bitterness
          Of love, and love lost, and love
          Betrayed. And what might have been,
          And what might be, fall equally
          Away with what is, and leave
          Only these ideograms
          Printed on the immortal
          Hydrocarbons of flesh and stone. (“Lyell’s Hypothesis Again”)
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Sometimes we must apologize for mistakes to let the relationship heal and continue to grow:
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          Now my heart
          Turns towards you, awake at last,
          Penitent, lost in the last
          Loneliness. Speak to me. Talk
          To me. Break the black silence.
          Speak of a tree full of leaves,
          Of a flying bird, the new
          Moon in the sunset, a poem,
          A book, a person. (“Loneliness”)
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An outer and inner peace can be achieved eventually as seen in “Quietly”:
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          So quiet, our bodies, worn with the
          Times and the penances of love, our
          Brains curled, quiet in their shells, dormant,
          Our hearts slow, quiet, reliable
          In their interlocked rhythms, the pulse
          In your thigh caressing my cheek. Quiet.
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          At times Rexroth infused a religious tone into his poems of love:
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          Let us bring to each other
          The gifts brought once west through deserts—
          The precious metal of our mingled hair,
          The frankincense of enraptured arms and legs,
          The myrrh of desperate, invincible kisses—
          Let us celebrate the daily
          Recurrent nativity of love,
          The endless epiphany of our fluent selves.  (“Lute Music”)
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          “She Is Away” is from a more mature poet’s point of view:
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 O love,
          I who am lost and damned with words,
          Whose words are a business and an art,
          I have no words. These word, this poem, this
          Is all confusion and ignorance.
          But I know that coached by your sweet heart,
          My heart beat one free beat and sent
          Through all my flesh the blood of truth.
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          Kenneth Rexroth lived from 1905 until 1982. His first wife Andree died in 1940, and he always revered her memory in several lyrics over the years. A very touching one simply titled “Andree Rexroth” concludes:
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          Bright trout poised in the current—
          The raccoon’s track at the water’s edge—
          A bittern booming in the distance—
          Your ashes scattered on this mountain—
          Moving seaward on this stream.
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          In the realm of poetry there is almost nothing more difficult to write than an original love lyric. We have looked at a number of passages. To conclude I would like to quote in full a short but very effective poem #X by Rexroth out of a series of linked poems titled “The Thin Edge of Your Pride”:
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          Out of the westborne now shall come a memory
          Floated upon it by my hands,
          By my lips that remember your kisses.
          It shall caress your hands, your lips,
          Your breasts, your thighs, with kisses,
          As real as flesh, as real as memory of flesh.
          I shall come to you with the spring,
          Spring’s flesh in the world,
          Translucent narcissus, dogwood like a vision,
          And phallic crocus,
          Spring’s flesh in my hands.
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All poems are taken from: The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)
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You can find the book here:

https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/pages/browse/book.asp?bg=%7BD2AA026E-B2F1-46AF-9735-90395CFBBCD6%7D

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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.

Remembering Mary Oliver

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By Stephen Page

Oliver as Nature

            This afternoon, I am rereading Mary Oliver’s American Primitive for the sixth time.  I first opened the book yesterday, and every time I reopen it, the poems make me forget the reason I am reading the book.  I am supposed to be looking for an interesting topic to write an essay about.  Each time I get a thread of an idea on what to write, the poems carry me to the place the narrator is, climbing a tree, eating blackberries, standing by a pond, watching a bobcat walk by, feeling large snowflakes land on my upturned face and melt on my cheeks.  I am immersed in the poems.  Being of quick mind, it took me only six readings of the book to understand why.  This is Oliver’s intent.  She immerses the reader into the poems by immersing herself into the narrator who immerses herself into the subject she is observing.

            The poem ‘White Night’ is a prime example of what I am speaking about:
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All night
     I float
           in the shallow ponds
                 while the moon wanders
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burning,
     bone white,
         among the milky stems.
              Once
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I saw her hand reach. . .
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the muskrat
     will glide with another
           into their castle
                 of weeds . . .
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           I want to flow out
                across the mother
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of all waters,
     I want to lose myself . . .
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You see how the narrator and the muskrat are similar in place, viewpoint, and action?  They are congruous.  Similarly, the second party, “her”, corresponds to the fourth party, “another.”   This “her” is possibly a lover of Oliver’s, and “another” is a mate of the muskrat, but if you take into consideration that Oliver starts the poem with “I,” and not “We,” I am guessing “her” is the transition-being of the narrator to the muskrat.  A morph.  At the end of the poem the speaker is the muskrat.

Similar transformations happen throughout the collection, in fact, almost in every poem—though Oliver is talented enough to make each transition unique.  Sometimes she writes mirror poems—for example, the bear poems.  In one she is observing a bear climbing a tree, finding a honeybee nest, enjoying the taste of the honey and so elated by the sweetness he is ready to fly like a bee.  In a sequential poem, the narrator is the bear, climbing the tree, having paws, eating bees that are in the way of her raid of the golden syrup, and then she too has the fantasy to fly.

Of course, success at having the reader become the subject via the narrator via the writer is due solely to the talent of Mary Oliver. Her lush language immerses the reader into the subject by stimulating all of the senses.   Only an adroit writer can pull this off.  Most writers resort to didactic-ism and over-explanation—Oliver simply shows, she never tells.

American Primitive has myriad themes that could be discussed in depth, but my theory is that Oliver was trying to convey one main idea—that is, that every living thing on this earth is connected.  She shows this in several ways: one, the morphing; two, by having subjects who die, or pass on, return to the earth or to the sea; three, the title, which along with several poems in the collection infers that the people who were living on the continent of America before Europeans arrived some five hundred years ago were in tune with the natural world—this is an indirect way of saying that the people who recently populated America are not so in tune.

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Stephen Page is the Author of The Timbre of Sand, Still Dandelions, and A Ranch Bordering the Salty River. He holds two AA’s from Palomar College, a BA from Columbia University, and an MFA from Bennington College. He also attended Broward College. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant. He loves his wife, reading, travel, family, and friends.

https://smpages.wordpress.com

Says the Forest to the Girl by Sally Rosen Kindred

saystheforrest

By Kristina Gibbs

If you want to be transported back into a land of Once Upon a Times where the magical and the mysterious collide, then delving into Sally Rosen Kindred’s work is for you. Only expect a few darker twists.

In Says the Forest to the Girl, Kindred modernizes popular tales—inserting Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and others—while also restoring them back to their original eerie glory. The results are spellbinding.

Just because Kindred focuses on fairy tales doesn’t make her work irrelevant to the hardships of the 21st century, however. In fact, her poem “Sleeping Beauty Makes Dinner” is a rallying cry for feminists everywhere. In this piece, Kindred cleverly depicts Sleeping Beauty being awakened to the reality of stereotypical gender roles that society impresses upon all people: it is the male who provides the substance of the meal, and the woman who prepares it. The inner turmoil that Sleeping Beauty experiences showcases her unhappily ever after:
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           I stir—
or did I ever
wake? Would a princess
be circling this pot,
her hand scarred from sleep’s glass thorns
and feeling the push
of the dark ladle through the broth,
her hair rising to mist in its steam?
I love this heat. Is that right?
It’s all too much like those years
of stained-glass sleep.
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Kindred makes the witty analogy between the confines of Beauty’s glass box to the confines of the role she plays as a wife in the kitchen. By circling the pot, the author emphasizes this mundane cycle of gender stereotypes that Beauty is trapped in.
Kindred reawakens childhood nostalgia inside all adults in Says the Forest to the Girl. She laments over lost dreams and feelings of imprisonment. Kindred seeks to reconcile the inner sprightly child trapped within the adult, and illustrate how adults trapped by life’s demands can shatter mandated adult monotony and dream again. She wrestles with this tension between what is and what once was in her opening poem “Women at the Crows’ Funeral”:
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The crows won’t ask
what kind of daughter you are—
if your grief remembers wings,
if you wear shoes of iron or shoes of wind
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Here the imagery of steel shoes compares to life’s burdens and responsibilities, whereas the “shoes of wind” depict the quick lightheartedness one feels when they dream or have far-fetched hopes. Kindred cleverly uses the shoe motif in fairy tales (like Cinderella’s glass slipper, or hot iron shoes Snow White’s stepmother danced in till she died in the Grimm retelling) to convey this. The narrator mourns with regret, aching for a chance to re-hatch and obtain her happy ending. Kindred interweaves this dichotomy of dreaming verses facing reality throughout the rest of her poems, painting striking images with words to parallel to the bold artwork on her cover. The speckled white forest contrasted with the sharp red background may be gruesome, but it conveys the restlessness and pain of her words held within.
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The chapbook itself is seamless. When the poems transition, each theme bleeds over onto the next page; the poems are distinct in voice and syntax, but they all carry ominous scenes and darker elements of nature. There is intent behind every minute detail from the symbols of black birds to the reintroduction of characters throughout the cohesive work.

Kindred’s work is vividly hypnotic. Her brilliant wordsmithing allows for raw statements and glaring images that strike at your emotions. This piece carries a somber tone, a far cry from well-known Disney remakes. After devouring the delightfully grim Says the Forest to the Girl you’ll be “Ravenous” for more.
You can find a copy of her work at https://porkbellypress.com/poetry/says .

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Kristina Gibbs is an emerging writer from the hills of Tennessee currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English and minor in Linguistics. She has previously published an interview in an online publication, Speaking of Marvels. When she is not reading or writing, you may find her clambering over both hiking trails and paint brushes.

Shame by Iris N. Schwartz

shame

By Charles Rammelkamp

The fifteen stories that make up Iris N. Schwartz’s new collection of stories have a sort of New York Jewish sensibility and magic that make one think of Bernard Malamud. The characters are Malamudian – lonely, neurotic, vaguely troubled, slightly clueless. Take Joseph Fein, a character in the title story. Joseph is 38 and for some reason is in Hudson View Rehabilitation, wearing diapers. It’s apparently a temporary condition. He hopes to return to full continence soon. In the meantime, he needs assistance changing his diapers, and the story goes into great detail as the nurse, a woman named Giselle, maneuvers him around his bed, protecting his modesty as best she can while doing her job, wiping him up, securing him in the diaper. Joseph is plainly mortified and doesn’t get the woman’s name – she’s just a function. But if Joseph is the one who is ashamed in his isolation, we get the sense that Giselle is also alienated. She’s rescued at the end by a cup of coffee.

In some stories dreams and waking consciousness are confused together with an effect like some of Malamud’s stories in The Magic Barrel.  Belle, in “At Liberty,” dreams of her wedding gown, which she has discarded along with the man she married. She’d married Benjy impulsively, almost out of desperation, but it soon became all too clear how limited he was.  Not only was he a boring lover, but Belle “often imagined casting a fishing rod into Benjy’s throat to find and reel in synonyms superior to the words he chose.” Especially the word “nice.” Benjy drives Belle nuts calling everything “nice”: clothing, movies, food, everything.

Belle’s dreams are full of guilt for the wedding dress, which she has tossed into a garbage can in the basement of her apartment building.  She dreams she sees the wedding dress soiled in a nearby vacant lot. She dreams an older woman commands her to rescue and bury the dress. Yet when she wakes up and goes for a walk, she discovers “between every shrub and flowerbed, were sleeves, hems, bodices,” and she is happy, no longer feeling guilt. “Her gown had found a home — ‘a very nice’ home.” Try not to laugh reading that line!

Similarly, in “Fur,” a woman named Dahlia is starved for the affection of a cat; she feels “feline deprived.” She falls asleep and is awakened by the doorbell. When she opens the door, she is greeted by a Maine Coon standing erect on two feet, wearing a blue suit. He asks her if she is ready to go shopping for cats. “Dahlia smiled. ‘Give me ten minutes, please. I’ll need to get dressed and get my coat.’” Which is the dream, which reality?

“Safety First” is another story in which dreams and guilt mix potently. Narrated in the first person by a divorced woman, we learn that the protagonist dreams of her ex-husband trying to kill himself.  “He was gasping, red-faced, kicking his legs over a knocked-over chair.” Again, she dreams of him, picking at a nail on his big toe, blood bubbling from his foot. “By the second dream, I knew I couldn’t save him.”

All of these characters are seemingly stuck in their sense of remorse, their shame. This is true not just of Joseph and Giselle, Dahlia, Belle and the unnamed narrator of “Safety First,” but of the anal hygiene-freak protagonist of “Franklin Is In” and Paula Baumgarten in “Ever After,” the longest story in the collection, which also involves a failed marriage and the sense of regret that inevitably follows.

Two stories, “Nickled-and-Dimed” and “Dime-Store Bandits,” involve a pair of sisters, Imogene and Lenore, girls who have not quite reached puberty yet. In the first, Lenore, the younger sister, swallows a buffalo head nickel and Imogene calls 911. The upshot is that they have to alert their parents, who are out on a date together for the first time in years. In “Dime-Store Bandits,” Imogene watches, fascinated, as her younger sister pilfers candy from a Luncheonette, “nabbing Chunkys and Bazookas by the handful and shoving them into a back pocket.” Imogene, who like all older siblings is something of a cop, reporting bad behavior to their parents, is nevertheless “impressed” by her younger sister’s boldness and decides not to rat Lenore out. “After all, Mother didn’t need to know everything, did she?” Inspired, she goes to Woolworths and shoplifts herself! Childhood is full of stories of guilt and transgression.

A handful of the stories in Shame – “Gifts from God,” “Dogs,” “Yellow,” “Excuses,” “Age” – are micro-fictions that strike with the force of epiphany. Indeed, all of Schwartz’s fictions are succinct and dreamlike, hypnotic and enchanting, with the beguiling charm of Bernard Malamud stories.

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You can find the book here:

http://pwpbooks.blogspot.com/

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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.