red hen press
Pacific Light by David Mason
Most Read Reviews @ North of Oxford 2022
Just in time for holiday shopping! Most read reviews as determined by the readership of North of Oxford
Casualty Reports by Martha Collins
All the Songs We Sing – Edited by Lenard D. Moore
A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers edited by Kyle Schlesinger
Smoking the Bible by Chris Abani
Contra natura by Rodolfo Hinostroza Translated by Anthony Seidman
The Flash Fiction of Lydia Davis
The Upright Dog by Carl Fuerst
Punks: New & Selected Poems by John Keene
The World’s Lightest Motorcycle by Yi Won, Translated from Korean by E. J. Koh and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello
getting away with everything by Vincent Cellucci and Christopher Shipman
Along the Way by Scott Pariseau
A Feeling Called Heaven by Joey Yearous-Algozin
Poolside at the Dearborn Inn by Cal Freeman
Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me by John Weir
The Bar at Twilight by Frederic Tuten
Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit by Judy Grahn
Suitor by Joshua Rivkin
Suitor, from the Latin secutor,
At the physical heart of Suitor, indeed, is a 20-page prose meditation on the moral ambiguities of people titled “The Haber Problem.” Making an implicit comparison between his father, an internationally admired oceanographer, often absent from his family on research expeditions – until he leaves the family altogether, via divorce – and the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Franz Haber, whose discoveries led to gas warfare in World War I and Zyklon B, the gas used in concentration camps in World War II to murder Jews (Haber, ironically, was a German Jew), Rivkin ponders the moral legacy a man leaves behind him. Rivkin cites one historian’s observation about Haber: “People don’t know whether to admire him or despise him.” On the one hand his discoveries led to artificial fertilizers, expanding how much can be grown, feeding people, and on the other, Haber was an enthusiastic gas warrior and a really horrible husband who drove his wife to suicide. His son likewise killed himself.
Just so, Rivkin constantly re-evaluates his own father, a boastful guy very much enamored of his own abilities and accomplishments, to the point of obnoxious arrogance. He is a man who has likewise caused emotional pain for his wife – and son. His father has “anger he carries like a pocket watch.”
Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me by John Weir
By Charles Rammelkamp
In the story “Katherine Mansfield” John Weir writes,
I don’t really understand friendship. If you’re in extreme need, I’m your best friend. Otherwise, I’m not there. There’s no second act in my life, but there’s a first and a third. I don’t do middles. I’ll stick around to fall in love and watch you die, but nothing in between.
Having lived through the slow, horrific death from AIDS of his close friend David, the author is experiencing a kind of PTSD. He feels survivor guilt. In “Humoresque” he writes: “My friends died and I didn’t. Or: I should have died and didn’t. Or: in 1984, I figured I’d be dead I five years; who didn’t?” Similarly, in the title story, “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me,” he writes: “I’ve watched friends die, and I have never been any help except to hold you and say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
The first part of this collection, called “AIDS Nostalgia,” includes seven of the eleven interconnected stories, almost all of them alluding to Dave. Indeed, the very first story, “Neorealism at the Infinplex,” begins: “My friend Dave died of AIDS in the fall of 1994.” In “It Must Be Swell to Be Laying Out Dead,” he tells us, “He’s the first person I speak to each day, the last one at night. Phone calls early and late. Every day for the past five years has started and ended with Dave.” In “Scenes from a Marriage,” he helps Dave in the bathroom at a Broadway theater as he sits on the toilet, “his pants and diapers on the floor.” His care of his friend is intimate and visceral, up close and personal. He feels helpless but responsible, anguished. “How can I help him? I’m not a doctor. He’s my best friend, but he doesn’t want me to touch him.,” he notes plaintively. Later in “Scenes from a Marriage” he writes, “By 1994 in New York City, AIDS had become routine, even as it stayed occult, a minority affliction.”
Yet Weir is also very funny, witty, especially in the voice of the manic, wisecracking David. He writes, “Now he’s dying, and I’m jealous. I’m competitive with Dave’s death. It’s all he cares about: dying, not dying.” And Dave, frustrated and desperate, lashes out at his friend/caregiver: “I’ve got news for you. You’re not the Messiah. You’re a fag. I’m a dying fag. I win the Suffering Sweepstakes. You think this is happening to you. Well, it’s not.”
“Katherine Mansfield” is a story about his romantic relationships soon after David’s death. Besides Marc, a successful singer/songwriter who regards Weir as his muse, there’s Phil, a younger guy he meets in an acting class. These relationships are doomed from the start, of course; Weir is too traumatized by death. He notes wryly about Phil, “A relationship that consisted of acting exercises, and an age difference big enough to span Madonna’s career, isn’t equipped to survive….” Elsewhere, he describes random furtive encounters in peepshow booths.
Movies, musicals, and stage plays are alluded to throughout these stories. Three of the stories – “American Graffiti,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” and “Humoresque” – are movie titles, as is “Imitation of Life,” the title of the third section, which contains only one story, the ominously titled “It Gets Worse.” “Katherine Mansfield,” by the way, is the name of the narrator’s friend Marc’s band; it does not allude to the British modernist writer, though Weir’s literary allusions abound, from Barthes and Foucault and Vladimir Mayakovsky to Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Thoreau, Stephen Crane, Robert Frost, Eudora Welty, Jack Kerouac, and so on.
Weir humorously channels the gay trope of worshipping camp actresses. In “American Graffiti” he writes, “I was an actress. I yearned to be. I still do. I wanted especially to be an actress in 1970s Hollywood movies. Those women!” He goes on to name-drop “Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Ellen Burstyn, Barbara Harris, Cicely Tyson, Carrie Snodgrass, Cloris Leachman, Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Diahann Carroll, Karen Black.” He compares himself to Tippi Hedren in The Birds.
The three stories that make up part two, “Long-term Survivors,” also focus on death and dying, including his mother, now in her 80’s, and an on again/off again lover/survivor named Scott. His mother lives in a retirement community and has just suffered a brain hemorrhage. “My mother is a movie star without a movie to star in,” he writes in “Humoresque.”
Just as in real life – indeed, it often feels hard to distinguish between fiction and memoir and essay in Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me – the narrator is involved in gay political causes, protesting with ACT UP for AIDS research and care, and with Queer Nation, notably a protest outside the Russian Consulate in New York against Vladimir Putin’s Medieval laws against homosexuals. “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re only drinking beer,” they chant, as they pour out Russian vodka onto the pavement.
By far the most affecting stories are the ones that describe being bullied and called names in his rural New Jersey schools. Not yet even sure of his sexuality, he is nevertheless singled out and tormented by other schoolboys who taunt, “Faggot!” “Fairy!” “Fruitcake!” “Homo!” “American Graffiti” takes place during his graduation from high school in 1976. As he crosses the stage to receive his diploma, the taunts are audible to all. The story is about his friendship with a girl, Lottie, whose parents seem to assume they are a romantic item. It’s a confusing time for both. The final story in the collection, “It Gets Worse,” takes us back to an even earlier time, in middle school, when the taunting began. “I was president of the fourth grade,” he writes, “my peak. Downhill since.”
Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me is entertaining and heartbreaking by turns, always a gripping read.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Nostalgia-Killing-Grace-Paley-Fiction/dp/1636280293
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
The Skin of Meaning by Keith Flynn
steered past, thankfully trapped behind their steel
American Quasar with poems by David Campos and art by Maceo Montoya + A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum
Two New Titles from Red Hen Press
By Greg Bem
As we continue to live our days through the latest chapter in our ever-unfolding, shared pandemic, and emerge from the darker months toward the light of the summer, two new titles from Red Hen Press arrive, and they are fantastic. These are not necessarily optimistic works of poetry, though they positively invite us to return inward and see the universe reflected within the self. I cannot recommend them enough.
The words of these poets who stare across the facets of existence, from the limitless sky to the great expanses of desert are pushing, pushing forward to question, reflect, and question further. These two distinct collections of verse, honoring many paths of the literary canon, are bountifully lyrical and entrancing. They arrive in our times of collective need, and shine upon the worlds that have continued to exist, worlds complex and beyond our human conflicts, burdens, and shadowy loss.
“[. . .] plunging further into a continuum you recognize as your own.”
(from “[* * * *] No 4 [ Fata Morgana ]” in Carl Marcum’s A Camera Obscura¸ page 70)
A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum is a book that feels full, feels like it is inspired by life itself (minutely and grandly) and the pact of pondering through a poet’s daily travels. This collection is filled with lines that stop us dead in our tracks, seek out the closest distance—the inevitable horizon—and beg to the nothing and the everything around us, “Why?”
It is an existential book, but it also takes the reader far from the gentleness of existentialism and philosophy. A sense of imperative action fills in the gaps between each stanza and leaves the stark poetry shivering in the zone of illumination, exposed like epiphany, insight, resolution. Poems often start with small keys that twist and unlock fuller worlds through textual portals. Insight is provided into recesses of our daily existence. One example is “Word Assimilation” (page 48):
If you’re looking for truth here, it’s only in passing.
If you’re looking for her, she’s in a room dreaming.
If you’re looking for them, imagine no English.
If you’re looking for work, see me at the door.
Marcum explores the border between the root of existence and the fringe, the tangential, the subtext. What is front-and-center and what is leftover, and why, becomes a series of questions that leads us to catharsis through their answers. All of this, provided in the narrative of the poems, opens further and further, a poetic field that is meta and direct at once.
Marcum’s work moves through the multilingual shadows, operating somewhere between Spanish and English, finding harmony (and harmony’s antithesis) within the translation of language and everything that occurs after. The poems in A Camera Obscura feel almost spontaneous. And yet they are process-oriented, just as the world is sculpted by infinite processes, infinite moments of translation, just as the hushed blend of cultures do their dance and the poet finds the self within that hush.
The poet’s voice is strongest in its acts of defiant questioning. Just as many before Marcum stared into the heavens and demanded answers, so too does he look upward and outward through his poetry. The cosmos is, throughout this collection, a grandiose muse, often starting and, subtly, ending each poem. In “Ojo de Dios” (page 60), Marcum begins: “Simple to understand: a star like our own that’s shed,” and closes: “Whose gaze is this? Whose soul growing exponential in darkness?” These are brilliant flashes calmed by darkness, by potential, by a sense of the beyond. The speaker grows through descriptions, through the process of describing, and by the ultimate loop into self-reference.
Time collapses into blank
& buzzing light. Something is bound to happen.
(from “Purgatory Adjacent: A Dreamscape,” page 39)
There is much to discuss with A Camera Obscura and, as its title alludes, much that alluded and cannot be directly seen. Overall, the book is an exceptional collection of elegant, intelligent verse. Each page, each poem unfolding, the lines felt monumental and momentous, creating worlds of text that last with flight and weight, paradoxically. Still, the joy resonates with the poet’s care intact upon each page. It leads to something, if not identifiable, still curiously certain in its sustained presence.
All the mirrors are broken. and the sun refuses to show you my shadow.
(from “A Town Hall in America in Five Movements: II. The Condition of My Heart,” page 29)
There is also much to discuss with Red Hen’s additional release featured here, American Quasar. The work features visual art by Maceo Montoya and poetry by David Campos. It is a wholly different but familiar work, one that aligns well with Marcum in its concerns and forays. The cover of American Quasar features a figure, back to the viewer, hunched over and staring at some distant horizon, with stars spilling down into the frame. It is a mesmerizing image, and one that aligns with the core of the book and its many visceral images, which are scattered throughout the book, neither dominant nor submissive to the poetic text.
The book is divided into two sections: “American House Fire” and “Quasars.” The former includes distinct themes of transformation and disintegration within the poetry and its American images. The text focuses on ecology—namely drought and rain—and seeks to examine the objective and poet’s landscapes of America. Drought and rain, deprivation and provision, serve as accessible carriers for the larger conversations of the United States, the region, and beyond.
Within American Quasar is a world of dissipation and disappearance just as it is a world of discovery and identification. It is about seeing, about understanding through definition, and about incomplete and undiscernible truths. Campos’s work “This American House” (page 37) is a fantastic example of the poet’s commitments, as it evokes mixed desire and cynicism at once:
When I dream of America, it’s only as big as a house, a home where all our roles are left on the doormat. I don’t just wipe my feet, I scrape off the crumbs of my desires and leave as is my unkempt mouth.
The poem is attached to another image of a figure by Montoya, this one a silhouette, who is bathed in light or fire, and the image contains a single textual caption: “there was no judgment” (which is also in the poem). The tone contains multitudes: stoicism, fatigue, solitude, and reverence, to name a few.
Each poem draws out a core, undeniable question: how many stories within the context of America, of the United States, of the “house fire” proverbial and literal throughout the West, emerge through writings like these? Campos’s writings, alongside Montoya’s art, investigates humanity in an age of barred immigration, barred inclusion, militarized borders, and the ongoing narrative against connection, love, and compassion.
How long has it ben since America looked
into a mirror and saw its true reflection?
(from “Historian of Buried Stars,” page 45)
A later poem, “The Dormant Quasar in Our Center,” is matched with a similar figure to the one described above, but features a stronger, invigorated stance with vertical stripes that move upward and downward, dynamic and static together. The poem closes, “Please. Tell me / the unraveling sky hides no stars. // Tell me it gives all its breath to the empty.” (64).
Campos explores the world and, much like Marcum described above, reaches a newfound symbolism of the external and internal. Campos’s strength is in the visual, the image-oriented approach to crisp, clean verse. He connects to greater phenomena using extended metaphors and loops of images and ideas. It is a poetry capable of blending the microscopic and macroscopic into a single, unifying understanding. The result is the emergence of allegory, mystery, and beautifully complex imagery, as with the work “The Human Condition is a Drought” (page 17):
is this why the rain has stopped? Are there no more names left in our mouths?
The only water left is in our blood; everyone hides a knife in their pocket.
American Quasar holds a marvelous place in the contemporary Latinx poetry canon, one that can be examined again and again. Both it and A Camera Obscura make great readings as the sky opens up and beckons us into the possibility of life throughout the summer.
You can find the books here:
American Quasar with poems by David Campos and art by Maceo – https://redhen.org/book/american-quasar/
A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum – https://redhen.org/book/a-camera-obscura/
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.
The Likely World by Melanie Conroy-Goldman
By Alexis David
In Melanie Conroy-Goldman’s novel, The Likely World, Mel lets a drug called “cloud” spread over her mouth and wrap her in a state of forgetfulness. The story is told in a braided narrative between the years 1988 and 2010. Mel is a woman whose mind has been fogged by substance abuse and is boggled when a man she doesn’t recognize shows up at her house. A single mother, she struggles with whether or not she should revert back to her addictive, pre-sponsor (Emily) behavior, or if she should adapt to a modern definition of pure motherhood, one where she tucks herself into a neat little drawer and her child becomes her new drug, her happiness, her everything.
In The Likely World, Conroy-Goldman has created a fictional drug that explores why, we as humans, want to forget parts of ourselves. Mel’s job is working for a man named Lew who asks her to create a tidbit of narrative that entices the viewer to click on a pornographic image. Once the viewer does, code is embedded into the computer and is able to replicate itself. This is similar to the drug Mel is using. That need she has, that we have, to forget, to smooth ourselves out, to become ideals of ourselves, to become the people in porn, which isn’t sex but the likeness of sex, the false beautification of sex: perfect people in perfect images whose entire objective is to arouse the viewer. Technology mimics real life but falls short. Isn’t the use of drugs always an attempt to either flee or enhance the actuality of perception? Drugs are an escape, a way out, a glossing over of all the problems we have: “a drug like that, it could smooth you out. All the awkward moments, all the missteps, cloud could fix all the times you got it wrong” (33). It sounds perfect, right? Except for one thing.
In The Likely World characters become ghosts of themselves. They show up to meetings missing hands, missing personalities, becoming people unable to recognize one another’s faces, unable to remember moments of their own past, always living in some kind of strange forgetfulness; their brains are always trying to piece together the whole story.
Conroy-Goldman’s postmodern novel beautifully speaks to the complexity of real life and addiction. Similar to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it’s a novel about addiction with an affinity for the strangeness of modern life, an investigation into modern brains, which are treated as computers with intricate and complex webs of synapses. Infinite Jest takes a capitalistic look at the future and creates a book with an encyclopedia of citations and endless references: paths that follow paths to more paths to more information, i.e. the internet. He reinvents the form of what a novel can be. Melanie Conroy-Goldman challenges the form of “novel” by writing one with a hole in the center: Mel is a character looking for Juni’s father, the boy she went to camp with, Lew’s video, and a man who came to her house in a SUV. There is an overwhelming sense throughout The Likely World of trying to get at the center of something. Mel’s daughter, Juni speaks in a type of gibberish, common to babies born whose mothers used cloud. Juni becomes a misfiring computer. The inability of her daughter to speak in real words is another hole, another post-modern stylistic choice: nothing, no one is whole.
This novel is ghostly and strange to read now, during the pandemic, during the post-Trump years, during our technological explosions. After reading it, I felt triumphantly happy for real life. I went to a picnic for a friend and saw that no one there was using their cell phones. I was elated to remember the faces of my friends and how they look in real life, outside, in the natural world, not on zoom, not on photographs on the screen. Perhaps Conroy-Goldman is commenting on our modern lives: put down your phones, give up your addictions, rebel against the attention economy and engage in the actual, real world: the one that already surrounds you.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Likely-World-Melanie-Conroy-Goldman/dp/1597098086
ALEXIS DAVID is a poet and fiction writer who holds a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an MA in Education from Canisius College and an MFA from New England College. She published a chapbook called Animals I Have Loved. Links to her published work can be found here: https://alexisldavid.wixsite.com/alexis/writing