By Charles Rammelkamp
“In those years I still believed in magic,” the schoolgirl narrator of the story “Bulldog” tells us after she has been informed by the boys in the schoolyard “no girls allowed” when she tries to participate in a game of handball. That night she dreams about her transformative powers. The stories in Nicole Rivas’ collection, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, winner of the 2018 Rose Metal Press flash fiction chapbook contest, brim with magic as young women cope with their powerlessness in the face of the abracadabra of love and ambition. So often, the magic lies in the contradictory pull of toughness and tenderness, as if the collision of the opposites creates a spell all its own. Emblematic of these opposing impulses is the image that concludes the story, “The Butcher,” in which the girl protagonist takes on her father’s butcher job. She routinely brings scraps of meat to the feral cats in her neighborhood. “…the cats slip and turn around her calves like warm and eager lovers, ready to strip the butcher of everything she has to offer them.” There is so much violence implicit in this image, yet so much affection.
Or again, take the conclusion of the story, “The Comedienne” (note that Rivas uses the obsolete term to identify a female comic), a story in which a young woman is effectively ostracized from a party after she makes a crude joke; she accidentally breaks her mimosa glass on the handrail going out, getting shards of glass stuck in her palm. Rivas writes about the pieces of glass that Sam, the protagonist, has removed from her hand, “If she arranged them one way, they looked like a dagger. If she arranged them another way, they looked like a halo.” Murderer or angel, sinner or saint?
And yet another example of this DNA-coiling of the yin and the yang, comes at the end of the story, “The Woman on the Bus,” when the narrator observes, “Though you know it’s unwise, you will continue to love and hate him until you can no longer tell the difference between the two.” In this story, the protagonist, “you,” is a young woman on a date with a man who clearly annoys her. Yet when he gets food caught in his throat and she has to perform the Heimlich maneuver to save his life, she speaks to him “in the soothing voice of a mother.” The woman is taken by surprise to hear herself, “the way it leaps out of your throat like a warm blanket.”
In all twelve of the stories that make up A Bright and Pleading Dagger these same contradictions are at play (or war), and the result is magic. “Gretel’s Escape,” which plays on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, may be the most magical of all. In this version of the story, the brother and sister are – surprise! – lost in a deep dark forest and they come upon a ruin. Sound familiar? Only, Gretel discovers a charred hardback (it’s apparently Grimm’s Fairy Tales) in which she reads about her brother and her being duped by a witch in a candy house. The witch tries to eat them, they get away, a lesson is learned, blah blah blah. Gretel’s reaction? “She was tired of being simultaneously lost and bound to fate.” She tries to ditch her brother, but she’s ultimately resigned to her fate. The story ends: “Gretel exhaled sadly, knowing Hansel would find her again, once upon a time.” Once upon a time. The love and the resentment are both so nakedly apparent.
Indeed, the fairy tale, with its implicit magic and its didactic moral message is the perfect genre by which to understand Rivas’ flash fictions, except that she turns it on its head: there is no moral; there is no bright distinction between “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “bad.” There is savage and there is compassionate, there is violent and there is kind, but they are never separate, only barely distinguishable.
These are all stories about girls navigating through some bizarre #Metoo world, at once victims and agents of their own fate. The teenage girls in the title story are picked up by some older hillbillies in a truck near Savannah. We don’t know what happens to one of the girls, Jada, who wanders off with one of the men when they park in a field miles from town, except that she’s apparently uninjured, but the unnamed narrator is sitting in the truck with her guy who masturbates while talking to her about scifi thrillers. Gross. Jada meanwhile quits her job and the narrator never sees her again. In the story, “Death of an Ortolan,” the young narrator is drawn into a relationship with Penny, her gynecologist, a woman more than twice her age. How can this not be exploitative? But the narrator seems to know what she’s doing.
The magic and the just plain weird aspects of these stories (In “The Staring Contest” a young woman speed dates – and falls in love with – “the oldest man in the world,” who dies sitting across from her) add up to a dark humor that takes the edge off the savage undercurrents, but the sheer menace just around the corner makes these stories extremely potent. This is a collection you will read straight through.
You can find the book here:
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse 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 FutureCycle Press.
By Stephen Page
A couple of years ago I traveled with my wife to my home state Michigan, north of the city of Detroit. We were to stay there during the last week of March and the first week of April. The last few times I went to Michigan it was either in June, August, or October. And even though I grew up in Michigan, I had not been to Michigan in March or April in quite some time. I packed a couple of cotton sweaters and a rad waxed-cotton motorcycle-style jacket with a picture of Steve McQueen imprinted on the lining. It had no snap-in wool lining and I thought that I would not need it. After all, March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Right? As the plane carrying me and my wife was descending for a landing in Detroit Metropolitan Airport, we looked out the fuselage window and saw what looked like at least three inches of snow on the ground. The pilot came on the air and announced that the wind chill was 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I looked at my wife.
The shuttle bus drove us to a car rental and we chose to pay for a mid-size car. The cashier told us we would get a Ventura. We stood outside shivering, clenching our teeth, hugging each other while we waited for the valet to arrive with the car. The valet drove up in front of us in a brand new Charger. He said he took one look at my cool jacket, and new I would need a sporty ride. I thanked him and gave him tip. We leaped in the vehicle, drove to the first shopping mall we saw alongside I-94, ran inside, and bought wool sweaters, down jackets, Detroit Lions beanies, and gloves. Sorry McQueen, you would have looked very cool in that new Charger.
Driving to my sister’s house, I remembered that when I was a kid I walked one mile every day to school and one mile back. Sometimes during January or February, no matter how many layers of clothing I wore, the cold bit all the way down to the marrow of the bones. The cheeks on my face felt like they had been scorched with ice. And then the cold would grip my lungs and heart and I thought I was going into cardiac arrest.
Reading Jack C. Buck’s “Gathering View” harked back those times. I had again forgotten that winter in Michigan can last well into May. Mr. Buck has kindly reminded me. I wish I had read this book before that expedition with my wife. Winter in Michigan is either chilly, cold, freezing, polar, bone-chilling, face-peeling, or heart-stopping. There is no warm, cuddly, soft-fleeced March lamb. Mr. Buck encapsulates this face-blistering phenomenon in his vivid collection of short poems. In his book, warmth comes only in human contact, literally and lovingly. His succinct poems paint the grandeur of Michigan in all its beauty—rivers, lakes, forests, flora and fauna. He also alludes to the Michiganders penchant for football. The book is divided into three sections: one is the late autumn and first few months of winter (including references to football); two, the long bitter middle of winter; and three, the ending of winter and the beginning of spring (which can still be quite nippy). In this book, Buck has produced empathetic poems about loneliness, solitude, and those ever-saving Persophonic graces, acts of humanity.
You can find the book here:
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.
Review by Robbi Nester
Recently, I watched an episode of the Netflix series The Chef’s Table featuring the sublime cuisine of a South Korean Buddhist monk who resides in a monastery in the forest, where she cooks for her community as well as for visitors who come from all over the world to taste those dishes. The food she prepares, her words, and everything about her embodies the teachings of Buddhism.
The multiple avatars of the Buddha in Luisa Igloria’s collection of poetry The Buddha Wonders If She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing) have not yet reached this monk’s advanced stage of enlightenment. They have not retreated from the world to serene sanctuaries, but live out their lives in the midst of the chaos the rest of us must negotiate every day, and yet these poems, like the dishes the monk prepares, are perfect embodiments of a Buddhist practice.
In “The Buddha considers with all seriousness,” the Buddha shops for ice cream in a convenience store, where she considers “[t]he vanity of decisions that revolve around desire.” Though the speaker in this poem, as in so many others, is the Buddha, this desire is not theoretical. The poem and the poet are clearly attached to the world of the senses. These poems embrace that world and evoke it with great care.
At the same time, they take up the challenge embodied by Buddhist philosophy, finding a way to unite it with poetry, which on the surface seems incompatible with the notion that desire and the senses, the concrete things that make up the substance of poetry, are but illusions. The speaker in “Ghazal with Cow burial” wonders about the after-life of a cow: “The cow that in this life was cow, does it remain the same? Does it dream/ of feathered grass in the fields, of gnats, the low symphony of fellow-cows//chewing their cud?” Poetry without the body is hard to imagine. What does it mean to be oneself when all the particulars this entails have gone? The very act of pondering this insoluble riddle presents an act of meditation.
Similarly, in “The last temple in the north,” the speaker, clearly a teacher of literature like Igloria herself, muses on the odd parallels between postmodern theory and Buddhist philosophy. Post-structuralist theory reduces language to illusion, indefinitely deferring meaning, yet, the poet insists, “[o]nce we understand we have nothing, then and only then can we understand poetry,” the word “deconstructed into fearful significance.”
In one poem after another, the various incarnations of the Buddha undertake the mundane tasks of everyday life, going on the Internet, filling out job applications, and dealing with the same annoyances the rest of us face. Yet on top of these everyday frustrations, this Buddha has others. Igloria elaborates the down side of a life of absolute compassion. The Buddha, open to the suffering of every living creature, suffers from chronic migraines and also psychic pain of another sort. To that end, she seeks out a therapist.
Privy to the Buddha’s worries, we find him fretting about the possibility of resolving doctrine with one’s emotions, as in “The Buddha listens,” where the speaker wonders “How is it possible to cultivate detachment/at the same time that one practices compassion?” Yet elsewhere, in “The Buddha is a wallflower,” we find the speaker practicing this very skill, listening intently to another’s reminiscence and remarking “how a memory not even his can offer a spark undiminished by the years.” This is radical empathy, the ability to identify totally with another, an ability as prized among poets as among practitioners of Buddhism.
Despite the fact that these embodiments of the Buddha live among us and sometimes suffer as we do, Igloria reminds us in “Innervate” that we carry within us our own retreat, the “little hilly village” of the brain,”criss-crossed/by winding trails and nestled like an egg/in a walled-off fortress.” It is to this redoubt where the speaker of “The Buddha picks up a call without first checking caller ID” retreats in his response to a telephone sales call, using a tactic that is at once straightforward and ingenious. Rather than simply hanging up, thus inviting further calls from the persistent sales-bot, the Buddha answers this person’s questions about life-insurance with tenets of Buddhist philosophy, such as “The goal/ of all life is the movement toward greater/and greater enlightenment, which is the freedom at last/from suffering and illusion.”
As this example suggests, Igloria both charms us with humor and gorgeously crafted poetry and embodies Buddhist concepts that can so often resist words. Whether you have never read the work of this poet or have followed her work regularly, treat yourself to this book.
You can find the book here: http://www.phoeniciapublishing.com/the-buddha-wonders.html
Robbi Nester frequently reviews books of poetry. She is the author of a chapbook, Balance (White Violet, 2012) and three collections of poetry: A Likely Story (Moon Tide, 2014), Other-Wise (Kelsay, 2017), and a forthcoming book, Narrow Bridge (Main Street Rag).
Talking Pillow by Angela Ball a professor of English at the Southern University of Mississippi, takes the poetry reader on a contemporary ride arounda block of modern subjects represented in both literal and figurative images.
Published by the University of Pittsburg Press in their Pitt Poetry Series, this 55-page soft cover tome offers reflections on universal themes such as love, loss, death hope and grief.
The poems are divided into three sections: Lady of the House, FBI Story, and Bicycle Story. The sections are thematic. In Lady of the House, the focus of the poems is on relationships and the myriad subjects that make them. In FBI Story the theme switches to discovery and realization using contemporary images that are both representative and logical. In the section, The Bicycle Story, the reader rides with the narrator through locales, timelines passing through remembrance and grief.
In the lead poem in the first section, Society for Ladies of the House. the situation is set in an ambulance ride to the hospital and the desire for the patient’s recovery The surprise ending is sweet but not sentimental and shows how love transcends every day minutiae to survive and make one recognize how glorious love is. After the trip to the hospital, the last lines show the true purpose:.
The narrator says you cannot touch anything without water. I like the perception of death during An Attempt, and the stillness represented by the bee caught trying but left unmoving. It is a visible image in nature that asks the reader to understand action projected and action paused…probably without warning. The last lines speak of the bee dust in the flower and the sad realization that the “we” of the poem will still not be any closer.
In The Bicycle Story, two poems attracted me: Lots of Swearing at the Fairgrounds, and Intercourse after Death Presents Special Difficulties.
The comment on confined spaces obscuring the beauty of nature is subtle but clear.
The lines that struck me in Intercourse After Death Presents Special Difficulties, beside the title, involve a congeal visit to the after life. Ball handles the desire without sentimentality but with intensity and possibility. .
For those who have lost a lover or a loved one, Ball suggest that there is shame in the need to touch and be touched by the lost one and how the narrator of the poem deals with the reality and perception
The book is a pleasure in its direct simplicity as well as its subtlety.
You can find the book here:
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.
By Richard Nester
Sonia Greenfield’s chapbook, American Parable, should receive a trumpet fanfare upon being opened. It pioneers a style, a method—not so revolutionary as Whitman’s breathtaking leap into free verse perhaps—but worthy of notice both for what it says and how it says it. Greenfield’s verse is fiery, packed with lived experience and whetted by an imaginative grit that is emotionally concrete, accurate and incisive. She manages to join Whitman’s vigorous engagement with public issues with Dickinson’s lyric genius for private mediation. Greenfield’s poems are not only important in themselves as individual explorations of significant human questions but also for what they accomplish in terms of method, which is to explore civic questions in poems that have a complete right to be called lyric poems, something long thought impossible. In American Parable, Greenfield successfully closes the considerable distance between the styles of Whitman and Dickinson and their subject matters.
To better understand how Greenfield operates in American Parable and why her method is so fresh, we need to look at a poem from her first collection Boy with a Halo at the Farmer’s Market. This poem “Nafsicrate Considers Bruegel’s Famous Work” reacts to W.H. Auden’s famous “Musee des Beaux Arts” from the point of view of a character who might have appeared in Auden’s poem but doesn’t, that is the mother of Icarus. Greenfield will use a similar approach many times in American Parable as she establishes a point of view that has been overlooked or disregarded and then uses that point of view to close the distance between the reader and the poem’s subject. Providing readers with these kinds of insights is a classic trope of lyric poetry, but one that has rarely found its way into the rhetoric of civic discourse.
One of the things we notice about “Nafsicrates Considers” is that Icarus isn’t named until the poem’s last line since to his mother he is simply “my boy,” a real person, who is both intensely special as well as typical of all children. She has passed her unique knowledge of how to dive to him—a detail that ironically references the painting—while acknowledging her anxiety for his safety. As she says “you can’t trust children to make good choices.” Icarus remains somewhat unreal to us since we don’t encounter him except in his mother’s report. In this respect, we are still “turned away” from him, to borrow Auden’s figure of speech, but Nafsicrate is certainly a real mother suffering the anxieties of a real parent and not the generalized, emotionally distant spectator of Auden’s poem.
Developing this fresh point of view enables Greenfield to dispute Auden’s opening claim in “Musee,” which is “about suffering they were never wrong / the old Masters.” Auden continues, deftly producing his evidence both from life and from Bruegel’s painting, so that we tend to accept authority of his argument and his verdict that indifference to suffering is the default mode for humanity. What other opinion could there be? Auden is apparently cocksure about its truth, but is it actually the only truth available? Is it so universal after all? Or is it rather the wisdom of a particular set of “masters” (with a small m), painting in a particular time for a particular audience, singularly devoted to commerce. By including an observer who is also a vital—but usually disregarded–participant Greenfield is able to challenge the hegemony of the expected, a classic move in lyric poetry.
As far as Yeats was concerned, poetry and rhetoric could not exist together, and his distinction between them is famous, poetry arising from “quarrels with ourselves” and rhetoric from “quarrels with others.” After Yeats, poetry took an inward turn away from public engagement and persuasion toward explorations of inner conditions and their imaginative traffic with the material world. When public engagement did occur as in Auden’s oft-quoted “September 1, 1939,” it exhibited a reluctance to linger with the personal. Within the space of a few lines, Auden moves from his seat at the bar “uncertain and afraid” to a place at the lecture podium delivering a geo-political sermon about what every schoolboy should have learned about the propagation of evil. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t great poetry, but it is not in the lyric mode of exploration and discovery. In American Parable, Greenfield closes this distance as we become more fully engaged with the people and issues she offers us.
Another means she adapts from the lyric vocabulary is what Matthew Zapruder in his recent book Why Poetry calls “associative leaping,” a form of imaginative seeing. This method is on vivid display in “Snapshots of Pluto from New Horizons,” a poem that skillfully combines exposition with lyric grace as Greenfield examines how embattled language is in the current political climate. She includes situations from gender politics to the distorting power of language without once seeming strident or accusatory. Humans may “default to optimism” as we imagine a heart shape emerging—like our own lunar man-in-the-moon—from Pluto’s “variegated terrain,” but the poem’s sadness is unmistakable, sadness for emotional resources squandered because of a lack of the clear seeing that poetry offers.
She provides a poignant update to Williams’ claim that “men die every day for lack of it [poetry],” as she focuses our attention on the women, workers, and children that are diminished by our failure to offer “new horizons” to our most vulnerable citizens. Her images have an associative power that belies their plain spoken sense. A case in point are the leaking “sandbags” of the poem’s last line, which remind us of our inability to insure against disasters political and emotional as well as natural.
A poem that pairs well with “Pluto”—in that both involve journeys that are in part hopeful and in part forsaken—is “Refuge” where Greenfield portrays the contemporary refuge experience through the eyes of a character she calls “melania” (spelled with a small m). “Refuge” fuses the refuge experience of women and children fleeing war or political crisis with the immigrant journey of the First Lady of the United States—a decidedly more well-known Melania—as it juxtaposes material barriers of “brambles” and “walls” with emotional barriers of “tinted windows” and “blue pills.” The fusion completes itself as the “tinted windows” of melania’s exile existence “roll down” the way / Slovenian woods pull their / shutters closed at the end / of the day” and melania is eventually pointed to her “bed over there.”
Woody Guthrie, in his classic protest ballad “Deportee,” recognizes that namelessness is a signal trait of the economic and political exile. He sings “you won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane,” reminding us not only of how dangerous anonymity is for the exile but also of how anonymity can be weaponized by the powerful. Greenfield, by ironically naming the principal character of “Refugee,” throws the humanity of the exile into stark relief. She will insist that the world look now even if it was not looking during the earliest stages of the world refugee crisis.
Accurate, insightful seeing is a crucial component of Greenfield’s lyric approach. In poem after poem, the visual details pile up, calling on us to witness what on many occasions we might prefer not to see. Sights, detailed on Greenfield’s moral canvas, places and events where the seeing is inward as well as outward, include those associated with lynchings and abortions. She notes in “Yours,” where the subject is unsafe drinking water, that moral toxicity usually accompanies physical toxicity. Twice she goes underwater, once to survey drowned Confederate statues, noting that “if you want to touch / this history bad enough you can dive for it” and again at “The Miami Museum of Water” where Trumpian artifacts submerged by global warming mingle with detritus from Cuban restaurants. Even when a poem’s overall message is inspirational, as in “I Believe, in the End, the Dogs Will Save Us” suffering is evident, a reminder that our real heroes are ones who survive trials—in this case a mutt whose leg is caught in a trap and not the kind of dogs—herders and bomb-sniffers—that are more likely to get credit for heroism.
American Parable’s title poem is probably the least lyrical of the collection, not because it lacks the quick movement that we usually associate with lyric, but because it is in fact a parable, a parable being a narrative tale designed to illustrate a universal truth. The universal truth in this case is the powerful negative impact of fear on a country and a people. The poem begins by describing the reasons that the country has not to be fearful: “weapons & open / spaces, prairie grass & forests / river runs & rolling golden / mountains.” But fearful this country is, shockingly so, and without rational explanation. Rumors of “terrible creatures” spread, but there is no evidence that they are doing anything “terrible.” Rumors are all the evidence offered. A “golem” appears to be lurking and a “fog of plagues,” but whether these dangers are the reasons for the fear or its consequences, goes unsaid. All we know is that a “prophet / who lived in a golden tower” tells the people that he can save them, provided they will throw rocks at those he says are to blame.
The allegorical nature of the narrative is too plain to bother recounting. Nonetheless, it is expertly told, and its truth about the consequences of fear is hard to question. Creating an allegory is clearly a way to steer the poem away from topicality and toward universality, and Greenfield is successful in doing that. “American Parable” is not a political lyric of the kind I have been examining, but it serves the collection the way the pole of a circus tent serves the spacious area underneath it—a three-ring circus of political poetry that illuminates our current crises and points a way toward new forms of poetic discourse. That these poems will constitute acts of resistance and survival is a hope profoundly worth hoping.
You can find the book here:
Richard Nester has twice been a fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has published essays on social justice topics in The Catholic Agitator, a publication of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, and poetry in numerous magazines, including Ploughshares, Seneca Review, and Callaloo and on-line in The Cortland Review, Qarrtsiluni and Inlandia. He has two collections of poetry, Buffalo Laughter and Gunpowder Summers, both published by Kelsay Books. His reviews of poetry have appeared in North of Oxford.
These images stay with the reader as a photograph in words, intense realism.
In the poem Champion Cat Breeder, Wierzbicki shows her humorous side in reflecting on poets.
“So you’re big in the poetry world/Who Cares?/ It’s like being a champion cat breeder/ You move in weird, fussy/ little circles/ where ego’s erupt like cat-spit …”
Wierzbicki takes on the elites in the poem, My Apology to Saks 5th Ave. In the second stanza she writes:
You can find the book here:
g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. He can be found here: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/