By Charles Rammelkamp
Think of Cynthia Manick as an impresario, the mistress of ceremonies organizing the entertainment at this gorgeous revue, which is complete with an intermission halfway through – “When Soul and Poetry Meet, a Revue Takes Place” – in which Manick explains her inspiration behind the project, back in 2013. Soul Sister Revue is a live show that takes place four times a year. This book represents the print analogy of the performance, with two poets from each of the twenty shows spanning the past five years represented. While not all the poets in Soul Sister Revue are female, they are all of color and all exhibit soul.
Which of course provokes the question, What is Soul? Glad you asked. Each of the forty-one poets with work in this anthology (the forty selected plus Cynthia) has an answer. The format for each performer-on-the-page on the Revue stage is: 1) the poem; 2) an explication or elucidation of the poem in the poet’s own words; 3) a response to the question, “What Is Soul?”; 4) a response to the prompt, “Favorite soul performer or song?” and 5) a brief bio of the poet.
“Soul is what’s left after the world has worn you down,” Jeremy Michael Clark (“Dear Darkness”) writes. “Soul is duende,” Roberto Garcia (“Elegy in the Key of Life”) writes, “that inexplicable thing that connects human beings, that makes art true.” “Soul is memory, even when you don’t realize you are remembering,” Rio Cortez (“Writing Lately”) opines. Yasmin Blkhyr (“& I Mourned What I Could Not Name”) believes “Soul is the heart, the meaty heart & also the whistle of air in the lungs.” And my favorite is from Mia Kang (“Civitas”): “Soul is the thing under the thing.”
You can find the book here: Anthologies — Jamii Publishing
It is easy to perceive Erik’s anguish and frustration and for the reader to identify with the character and his situation. But yet, for all his self conflict and remuneration, Erik survives.
Charyn presents the journey of Cesare, rescued by a conflicted Nazi, as he finds his way from his Jewish childhood, the loss of his father at two, the disappearance of his mother, to the life of a Bavarian aristocracy through his sister’s brother and to so much more. The search for self as the self is changed and changed again is clear and well presented.
Cesare who was Erik seems to be living the preverbal nine lives.
There is a love story that propels the storyline forward. Joyce Carol Oates says of Charyn in a New York Times Review. “Among Charyn’s writerly gifts is dazzling energy—a highly inflected rapid-fire prose that pulls us along like a pony cart over rough terrain.”
I agree. The prose keeps the reader aware and interested throughout the novel. The storyline shows how love does not conquer all but at least gives life meaning. Cesare is a well-crafted book and well worth reading.
Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.
By Jim Feast
Bernard Meisler’s new detective novel, There’s Never Been a Better Time to Buy Die, centers on a flawed character who acts as a sleuth. If we look over some of the classical gumshoes, from Phillip Marlowe to Travis McGee, going back to Sherlock or, for that matter, Hercule Poirot, all of them, while differing in lifestyle, methods of investigation and personal involvement in the cases, are basically decent human beings. In radical contrast, in Meisler’s novel the sleuth, real estate salesman Rick Davies, is a petty chiseler, failed business investor, over drinker, and all-around skunk, who sets out to investigate some crimes in Mill Valley, a tony community north of San Francisco,
And it’s this a-bit-unsavory narrator who gives the book its irrepressible zing. For one, while our larger-than-life protagonist, always on the lookout for the main chance, spends his time trying to find the truth behind a murder linked to some illegal drugs he found in an old house he was prepping for sale, he accompanies this with a running, scathing commentary on his fellow, equally flawed but generally much richer, neighbors and suspects. For instance, in labeling the different suburban lifestyles, he mentions: “Let’s not forget the trustafarians. Their grandfather invented Velcro or Sterno or whatever. They dress like bums, torn t-shirts and ripped jeans or else eccentrically, sporting Victorian gear and top hats, killing time, waiting till the sun goes down so they can get loaded again.” In another classical skewering, he watches a rich yuppie getting out of her car with her kids. “Her kids popped out of the SUV like maggots out of a dead rat’s eyes, the girl in a ballerina outfit, the boy in a baseball uniform, still carrying his little bat. It could have been the cover of White Privilege magazine. ‘Zooey! Hunter! Let’s go.’”
Indeed, while detecting these motes in other’s eyes, he is also amusingly aware of the beam in his own. He characterizes himself, “People [in the area] like to hike and commune with nature but me, I’m a dedicated indoorsman.” And, to go back to the earlier comment on trustafarians, he ends his diatribe with this, “Believe you me, it might sound like I resent them but I don’t. I want me some of that fuck-you money too so I could smoke weed all day, drink all night and sleep till noon.”
But let’s be clear – and this is one of the gutsy moves of the book – the funny patter doesn’t make our protagonist a loveable bad boy, he can be a real shit.
The second strength of the book is that while trying to solve the crime, Davies must also keep trying to earn a living as a real estate broker, and in doing so he lays bare the scamming and over-hyping that are standard practice in a field, which, like a con game, depends on the cupidity and vanity of the clients to keep the money rolling.
He explains, for instance, that what the realtor wants is a quick sale, not the highest price. He says, rhetorically, “Do you think I’d rather sell your house in the first week for $900,000, or take 3 months of work to sell it for $1,000,000? That a $100k difference for you but not for me. See, I can make $13,500 in a week or $15,000 in 3 months. Which do you think I prefer?” Not that he lets the seller find that out. He goes on, “Meanwhile the suckers – I mean my cherished clients – think I’m out to get them top dollar. They think I’m their friend. Who am I to disillusion them?’
I appreciate learning the (often nefarious) workings of this business as well as the way Meisler keeps the pot boiling, that is, keeps the clues popping up and the mystery unfolding. But most of all how he puts center-stage a narrator with two major “character defects,” using my special meaning of the term. I am taking it to mean not the personality-based shortcoming of the character in a story; but to defects which hit at the character’s functional role in the narrative.
Perhaps from what I’ve said already you can see what I’m getting at. A basic innovation in Meisler’s approach is in giving the story over to a lead character who violates two conventions. Davies is a detective who lacks the traditional good sportsmanship and decency of the Chandler type P.I. And, along this same line, he does not even have the charm and saving grace of the bad boy scamp, such as Hammer (as played in Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, for instance), who may have gotten drunk too often or let his partner get killed. No, Davies is not so lovable. For god’s sakes, when he sees he can get away with it, he even steals money from an old lady.
Add to that a second violation. He breaks with one regularly honored convention of satire. Like Juvenal, he “lashes the rogues,” treating those who deserve contempt with contempt, but he refuses to make this judgment from a lofty place, looking down at the lowlifes. Davies admits to sharing similar vanities and cupidity with those he condemns, shares them without having the strength to grow out of them
So if you want a book that, in the process of delivering a good mystery, on multiple fronts challenges the accepted way of doing things, in that case, while there may be a better time to buy, they’ll never be a better time to read this book.
You can find the book here: https://sensitiveskinmagazine.com/books/theres-never-been-a-better-time-to-die-bernard-meisler/
Jim Feast is the author of the poetry book Time Extends Life to Those Who Survive, Fly by Night Press, and the novel Long Day Counting Tomorrow, from Autonomedia.)
By Charles Rammelkamp
“I walked purposefully down the cobblestone streets, as if I knew exactly where I was headed. I’d figure out the direction as I went along, like I’d done many times before,” Leah Mueller writes in the story, “Leaving Bisbee.” It kind of sums up the narrator’s modus operandi throughout these tales. Subtitled Tales of Poor Life Choices, the stories are not so much about “misguided behavior” as they are about improvising with the less than ideal hand you’ve been dealt.
There’s a sly humor at work in these stories, too, as is evident from the very title of the book. Mueller can also finish off a tale of hardship with a spark of dry wit. Take the story, “Other People Ruin Everything,” a bit of graffiti she reads on the wall in a bathroom stall in a bar in Seattle. (“Hell is other people,” Sartre famously wrote in No Exit.) She’s gone into a bar she used to frequent, for old times’ sake, only to be waylaid by the other customers there, people with their own agendas. When she leaves, she finds a parking ticket on her car: the whole neighborhood has been gentrified since she was last there, along with new parking restrictions. The whole evening underscores the wisdom of the graffiti. But she concludes with the reflection, “On the other hand, most of us manage to do a damn good job on our own.” Hah!
In these autobiographical tales that span over three decades, we follow the protagonist from one weird job/situation to another, starting with her mother, in “Running from the Law.” Polly drives up to Chicago from Mexico with several pounds of marijuana stowed in the car. She has a half-baked idea to sell the pot for a fortune – or rather, to have her daughter sell it for a fortune! (Later, in “Queen of Rage,” she will goad her son to steal a Christmas tree!) Needless to say, it doesn’t work out.
Then there’s the telephone sex scam (“The Lust Peddlers”), the pole-dancing in a New Orleans bar (“Nobody’s Prerogative”), life as an itinerant astrologer reading tarot cards, and in the soul-numbing, yet funny story, “The Clown Chronicles,” dressing up and passing out fliers on Michigan Avenue in Chicago for a sketchy outfit called the Education Zone. The story begins: “An extended period of abject poverty led to my decision to become a clown.” She answers an ad that begins: “Fun job! Man or woman with cheery disposition and friendly personality….” Cheery? Friendly? You can imagine how that job requirement goes down.
It’s a life of invention, ad-libbing, extemporizing, as she gets blindsided left and right, and yet, she maintains a stoic attitude. “Despite my own hardships,” she writes in “The Other Side of the Cage,” a story about being stoned and lost in a zoo in New Orleans with her boyfriend, “I remained entrenched in the belief that my luck would change.”
Not all of the stories are about jobs, of course, but also about complicated relationships. The narrator’s dumped and been dumped by more boyfriends than you can keep track of, married at least three times. And then there’s that strange mother! Talk about having to make adjustments on the fly!
“People tell me I’m an extrovert,” she writes in “San Francisco Heart,” “but I don’t believe them. I’m way too fond of losers to be an extrovert. Losers are awkward, unable to play well with others. They’re my tribe.” Elsewhere she writes, “I felt infinitely safe with fucked-up people.” “San Francisco Heart” and the following story, “Leaving Ypsilanti,” are about a problematic relationship with a character named Greg, with whom she carries on an affair while being married to another guy named Roy. Yeah, it’s complicated.
In one amusing story, “Cities Where You’ve Lived, As Boyfriends,” Mueller mashes up these threads of romance and making a life for yourself (job, family, etc.). “Portland is your hipster boyfriend with a tongue ring,” she starts. Kalamazoo? “…the boyfriend who gets drunk, smashes your possessions, and steals your laptop so he can sell it to buy crack.” Then there’s Chicago, Tacoma, Seattle, where she ends with characteristic Mueller sardonic wit: “Seattle won’t even answer your calls.”
And where does it all end? Remember, this is a person who is confident her luck will change. The protagonist of these tales is an optimist, essentially, who refers to her “grim, Germanic sense of responsibility.” In “Time to Go, Grasshopper,” the narrator remarks, “I can sleep at night, knowing I’m not too much of a fraud.” Is there such a thing as karma for this person?
The final story, “The Sunshine Court,” set in 2025, depicts a rosier finale. The protagonist, Lola (mostly the narrator identifies herself as “Leah” in these stories, but Lola has similar attitudes, habits and outlook), a woman in her early 60’s, has settled into a retirement community in the state of Oregon that sounds too good to be true. Simpatico neighbors who look out for each other in interesting ways. A fantasy? A happy ending? You decide.
These stories are funny, erotic (“The Great Canadian Beaver-Eating Contest,” for one, set at the Burning Man festival in Nevada), insightful and brave.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Misguided-Behavior-Tales-Poor-Choices/dp/1989225241
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.
By Greg Bem
“The sound of a train, ship, flute. Children drift into the trees. Heads on poles, on the back of a truck, firing into the air. They sing birthmarks and stiches all over me. Red and green mirrors. A blurring knife.” (from “MOTHER AND CHILD”, page 11)
Rauan Klassnik, author of The Moon’s Jaw (2013) and Holy Land (2008), has once again painted a portrait of a universe as disrupted as it is confident, as demented as it is formulaic: A SLOW BOILING BEACH is that portrait and it is as fascinating as it is ornamental, brute ugliness and attraction rippling with horror and total, existential embrace of traumatic moan, sigh. The language of an interior of pain, violence, and sexuality is masked with hallucinations and thrills. There is the heartbeat rhythm that lines these pages as they slice and splay organized disorder from page to page.
“I wrap it around me as I’m jerked up into the burning air. Cold swaying hooks. A knife pushed slowly into my heart. The dog’s head comes off in my hands.” (from “A DESTROYED NERVOUS SYSTEM”, page 13)
The “antithetical literary work” contains a fairly structured format. Six sections composed of scattered prose that strings together the monstrous, horrific story of an individual or sequence of individuals (depending on how far you lean over in your chair while reading it) who come together to merge or separate in active, desecrating union. There is a sexuality that is vicious and filled with animosity. There is a figuring of Thanatos that flares time and time across the individual pieces. These motifs blend and blur. They exaggerate and suffocate. They are united as much as the human and other animal figures are united. And it is profound, A SLOW BOILING BEACH, in its potency to persist as an unnerving guffaw into the 21st Century abyss.
“An owl sits in a tree. I’ve had enough pain and euthanasia. When I climaxed it felt like someone shoving knives in my eyes.
“You are asleep, digging into the cold. I swallow them all gliding in over the snow. Boys hanging in the trees.” (from “IN A PYRAMID”, page 38)
The book’s six sections have underlying threads, which show their surfaces elaborately and illusively. There is illusion and there is provocation. Tones move from mercurial to vainglorious. There is ever the hint that this world can be refracted. It is at once cubist and at once dominant in its language and the underpinnings of the literary reality that may or may not matter. In the end: these are prose poems that can continue to end as much as they can continue to begin. Like Battaile and Camus: the mythos is captured through an ever-consuming sense of awe and dread that glistens and terrifies one in the same. For Klassnik’s speakers, the swirling appearance of this horrific reality is both urgent and disturbed, both inspiring and damning. It is a kaleidoscope of realization (epiphany towards meaning) and function-meets-nonfunction. It is opportunity and it is suffering. The resulting aesthetic, developed across the pages, is one of shadow and that which is long-since wrought. It is, as the title of the book suggests, a slow boil.
“A sky bruised like a corpse. So peaceful. A horse dipped in gold. And she’s sitting in the garden, painting the lunatics. Bloodshot. Thieves.” (from “THE RICHEST YACHT”, page 43)
As with Klassnik’s former collections, there is a distinct emphasis on the multisensory imagery of material and surface. That which we (as living, livid beings) are composed by. That which we must work with. That which we can use and abuse. In which we find constraint. There are holes, niches, corners, and funnels. There are places of privacy and intimacy, and places of public affect. There is metal, plastic, and wood. There is flesh, feather, scales, shells. Materials are universal, collected, and polarizing. Within the book, examined is the material world of detritus that forms our contrasted realities and perceptions of the agony of experiencing and knowing within those realities. It is also the material world that affords us the symbols that allow us our rituals. From anuses to eyeballs, from fetuses to cakes, living means confronting all of the lived experience without exception. It is fuel for the speakers of this book to persist in their desires and their agonies.
“I take the bus. A bunch of convicts lighting up the skies flowing beneath their cages. They love the river. And the gaudy azalea bushes. People are killing. People are kissing.” (from “PHEASANT IN THE ROAD”, page 51)
Much like Dante and de Sade, the realities by which and through which Klassnik writes are largescale and appropriately daunting. They are unconquerable, indomitable, and forever chastening.
“You call out like birds.
“You are filled with mist, a scent, livid, flying and triumphant.
“You come from the womb and anus. A giant eye with little eyes hidden around it in the branches and grass. Plague creeps through.” (from “POLLEN”, page 95)
Philadelphia’s Kim Gek Lin Short partially describes the book as a “slashed paradise to the max—the civilizing byproduct of subjugation.” Both inviting and unreasonable, A SLOW BOILING BEACH finds its invitations and antagonisms through its sourness, its revolt. It is the difficult to swallow. The awkward and punishing. It is the bright that leads to blindness. It is ripe with upset and disintegration, and can cause brows to raise and buttocks to clamp shut ever-so-slightly. Ever so demonically, ever so mildly. It is a book that stiffens the back and smothers the breath. And it is also a book of imaginable solutions to the world that has shattered and fragmented. Through Klassnik’s megalomaniacal efforts, the poetry of this landscape still rings with Keatsian romanticism. It is still raw with the rupturing, inescapable beauty of our consciousness, no matter how agitated and impalpable at times its heights reach. To be with these efforts is to swallow Klassnik’s worm, to approach Klassnik’s giant eyeball, to await the outpour of fluids and results and to process them the way we always process them: with the agonizing intention perpetuating hideous and beautiful growth and, like the speakers themselves, a drowning sense of fatigue. And it is our sense of fatigue, collective, systemic, and from the skull that weighs all of us down towards the earth. “Its face is a skull. It pulls a soft face on,” writes Klassnik (“MY WEDDING DRESS”, page 74), and with this meeting of the intimate we find the grotesque, clever and relentless as ever.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Slow-Boiling-Beach-Rauan-Klassnik/dp/1688984313
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 Nicole Yurcaba
Jayinee Basu’s The City of Folding Faces explores a multitude of themes relevant to our own current American society. Mara, the novel’s main character, is an everyperson of sorts. Her struggle as a Ruga—a subculture composed of those individuals who have uploaded themselves into a conscience-expanding system that defies human limits known as Roulette—to communicate to her non-Ruga boyfriend, Arlo, provokes the reader to think about the discrimination of transgenders in the military and the workplace as they appear in day after day in our own world. For example, at one point in the novel a news release states that “Belgium has proposed a bill banning Ruga individuals from being employed in governmental positions” (66). This ban effects Hanne, Arlo’s one-time lover and a Ruga who suppresses her dimensional dysphoria by using a nasal spray she developed, who left Belgium but eventually decides to return. More importantly, the fictional ban echoes the Trump Administration’s 2019 transgender military ban of nearly 15,000 transgender troops serving in the military, as well as the subsequent follow-ups by military academies to ban transgenders from enlistment, all of which cited gender dysphoria as a reason for the block.
Hanne’s character in the novel opens the discussion regarding what lengths people go to in order to conceal or deny their identities, a discussion that is more and more important in American society where discriminatory public policies regarding transgenders and others of the LGBTQ+ community often force people into emotional, even mental, seclusion. Though the novel does not focus on Hanne’s struggle with her Ruga identity, it alludes to the struggle, since the reader sees Hanne utilizing a nasal spray that she developed in order to suppress her Ruga tendencies, and the reader experiences, along with Hanne, the painful effects of identity suppression. At one point, in an attempt to help Mara, Arlo asks Hanne to give him access to the nasal spray, though the spray has not been federally approved for public use, and Arlo is unaware of Hanne’s Ruga identity and her use of the spray.
While Hanne makes the choice to return to Belgium under dangerous and hostile conditions, Mara makes the choice to undergo a radical, figure-changing surgery that modifies her face in order to express the inexpressible. The surgery, nonetheless, has consequences: Ruga are increasingly ostracized, discriminated against in the workplace, and ultimately banned from the rest of society. Mara also grapples with the loss of her relationship with her boyfriend, Arlo. Again, an informed reader might think of the Trump Administration’s transgender military ban. Theoretically, under the Administration’s ban, those transgender individuals who have already enlisted and serving can stay in the military, as long as they are out and have a diagnosis. However, many transgenders—much like the Ruga in Basu’s novel—fear promotion denial, deployment denial, or forced discharge.
At a turning point in the novel, Mara leaves Arlo to live with not only a group of Ruga, but also the creator of Roulette, who struggled with dimensional dysphoria and desired to create a safe place for Ruga members. For awhile, it seems that Mara and Roulette’s creator will form a creator-creation romance. What happens is a shock: Mara eventually returns to Arlo, after stealing her memory files from Roulette’s creator, and Arlo becomes a character that many might see as the antithesis of American society’s attitudes towards those who choose otherness, a different or new identity, etc.: accepting, welcoming, and progressive in his attitudes: “Some people grow steadily, like a tree. Others are like volcanic rock, the accumulated sediment of serial eruptions. Arlo was an analog vine creeping along the violently digital protrusion of her existence” (98). Thus, Arlo, in one person, represents the many Americans and citizens of other nations who have opened their homes, their hearts, and their lives, to love and acceptance, such GLAAD and other local and national support groups for those who are transitioning.
Basu’s novel is brief, sparse, and open, and the openness allows the reader to interpret and engage with the novel at superficial, metaphorical, philosophical, and even spiritual levels. The City of Folding Faces allows readers to enter a society radically similar—maybe even radically prophetic—yet different from our own, where the issues and choices those of otherness face are real and every day. The novel also implicitly asks the reader to search within themselves to find the answers to difficult questions posed by the acceptance of otherness, as depicted by Arlo’s eventual acceptance of Mara’s Ruga identity, and society’s eventual tailoring of itself to meet individual needs. At both the figurative, the personal, the universal level, The City of Folding Faces asks “What’s next?” When interpreted through the current lens of American social and political issues, The City of Folded Faces becomes a must-read for those engaged in discussions regarding identity, fluidity and even race.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07PVCW7FS/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i1
Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist, who teaches at Bridgewater College and serves as the Assistant Director to the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, and many other online and print journals. While her poems often focus on Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian diaspora experience, her essays primarily focus on US Army Special Forces. She lives in West Virginia, and she holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University.