Review of I Am the Beggar of the World by Eliza Griswold

How to endure the unendurable? Perhaps it comes down to wit—keen intelligence cutting to the heart of things. Truth-telling wit may bestow power—however briefly—to the powerless. Think of the rawest blues song, the bawdiest limerick, Shakespeare’s Fool, the anthropomorphic mouse in the old poster, middle finger raised at the bomb looming over his head.

With the help of native speakers of Pashtun, and Afghan scholars of the tradition, Eliza Griswold has compiled and translated a book of landays — a two-line form of folk poetry perhaps five thousand years old — from Afghanistan. Her piercing, matter-of-fact commentary on the poems and their historical and cultural contexts, coupled with Sean Murphy’s stark and beautiful photojournalism, adds a new chapter to the ancient story of human indomitability.

Landays are typically sung, and in all but rare cases sung by women without prompting or occasion. Traditionally, they embody sexual longing or delight, and some of the most affecting of Griswold’s collection do so without explicit acknowledgement of war or oppression, mention of which would undercut the ironic humor of the landays. “Your eyes aren’t eyes,” begins one, setting up the immediate payoff: “They’re bees.” The second line concludes, “I can find no cure for their sting.”

In her commentary, Griswold situates the landay within a rigidly patriarchal culture. In this context, the landay is inherently subversive—dangerous and hidden in plain sight, yet elusive. Consider the poem that opens the book’s introduction:

I call. You’re stone.


One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.


A dozen one-syllable words, three full stops. By means of strong stresses (“call” and “stone”), the first line makes us feel the power of the poet’s need and her lover’s implacable response. The second line plays on “look” and “find,” embodying a hope whose futility the speaker can’t quite admit. Likewise, the permanence of “stone” rhymes with the finality of “gone.” “One day” issues a threat the speaker of the poem wills herself to carry out, but not yet.

A young woman who “called herself Rahila Muska” phoned this landay to an Afghan radio program. Unlike most of the “twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Griswold explains, Muska had some formal schooling, but “poetry, which she learned from women and on the radio, became her only continuing education at home.” Because in Afghan culture “women singers are seen as prostitutes,” they sing in secret. After finding out Muska wrote poems, her brothers beat her. In protest, she committed suicide by self-immolation.

I Am the Beggar of the World documents the private, anonymous wars these singers wage, mirroring the wars that have ravaged Afghanistan for generations. In one of many stunning juxtapositions, a photograph by Sean Murphy shows five fighters on a barren piece of land, a truck in the near background, mountains in the distance. Four of the men stand, one bending over the fifth, who kneels on the ground, an automatic rifle to his right. Is the bending man helping the kneeling one shed his coat? Starting to treat a wound? Tying him up? Are they allies, or enemies?

The landay on the facing page reads:

In Policharki Prison, I’ve nothing of my own


except my heart’s heart lives in its walls of stone.

The photograph and landay play with lethal uncertainty and duality. The singer herself is not held in Kabul’s infamous Russian-built prison. She is alone with absence: her heart’s heart, her beloved, lives in the prison, and also within the “walls of stone” themselves, his being infusing stone. Because the singer can’t be sure her beloved is alive or dead, the poem supports and rewards multiple readings.

Wit infuses even the bleakest landays. For instance, confronted with “My lover is fair as an American soldier can be,” we notice the ambiguity of “fair”: is he just? Does he have a light complexion? The first line of landay plays on the variations and limits of American fairness, and the second line provides an unambiguous reading: “To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.” The singer is revealed as a voice from the grave and the lover, fair or not, soldier or not, her killer.

In her selection of these landays, Griswold works to explode the notion of Afghan female helplessness. These tough-minded, heartbroken, defiantly funny poems reject tail-swallowing irony and narcissism characteristic of some contemporary verse. Like any living tradition, the landay is simultaneously timeless and of-the-moment. It does what all poetry attempts to do: sing what’s most fundamental in human existence.

 

Review of One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist by Dustin M. Hoffman

Ernest Hemingway claimed that all true and good books share one common trait: “[A]fter you’ve read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and it belongs to you forever: the happiness and unhappiness, the good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, wine, beds, people and weather.” In his first book, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, Dustin M. Hoffman adds another category to Hemingway’s list of “true” experiences: hard work. His painters (“Sawdust and Glue”), construction workers (“One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist”), salesmen (“Pushing the Knives,” “Everything a Snake Needs”), refinery workers (“The Fire Chasers”), ice-cream truck vendors (“Ice Cream Dream”), and poor folk (“Can Picking”) navigate the mundane realities of laborious lives while dealing with their own tragedies and insecurities. This is a world where fathers take their sons to street fights, as in “Sawdust and Glue.” It is a world where, in “Subdivision Accidents,” painters consider dousing themselves in turpentine to support their families with worker’s compensation.

But these characters are more than representation of labor ground down by a capitalist economic system. Hoffman avoids the pitfall of Socialist Realism, in which the working-class are idealized and the narrative often obviously didactic. As the narrator of “Can Picking” proclaims, revolutions don’t make much of a difference: “Nothing changes for good.” Hoffman’s men—and they are almost all men—struggle to survive lives of endless and honest work without reprieve, and it is in this work that Hoffman foregrounds his exploration of larger concerns. Within this collection, Hoffman’s characters experience loss and regret, suffer crises of identity and masculinity, and learn to navigate modernity. They are men who have failed as fathers and sons, friends and lovers, men who flee from the past even as the past catches up.

These men have also triumphed over the quotidian and banal, decoding simple yet profound truths about existing in a gendered space. “Everyone pretends they’re bigger than they are,” Smiley observes in “Sawdust and Glue,” “and they end up looking smaller, buried in their too-large shirts.” Or as the narrator in “Ice Cream Dream” discovers, one finds freedom on the path “that didn’t need a past, only a will to drive down any new road.” With delicacy and skill, Hoffman delivers a profound and sympathetic vision of American workingmen learning to cope.

In many ways, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist feels like an intimate book because it deals most prominently with patrimony and bloodline. Many of Hoffman’s most touching stories consider the complex and evolving roles of fathers and sons. In “Fire Chasers,” a father tries to relate to his son by taking him to watch local fires against the backdrop of a failing refinery and loss of employment, but his attempts only seem to result in the emasculation of a son he can’t understand. “Sawdust and Glue” features a father whose only remedy for the past is to give his meth-addled convict son a painting job and act as second when his son fights the biggest man on the job. “Ice Cream Dream” features a father-narrator who hates kids working as an ice-cream-truck driver to provide for his estranged children. In these stories, Hoffman considers the uniquely challenging dynamics of the father-child relationship. One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist considers the question of what makes a father good or bad in a world where happiness, and even survival, is not guaranteed.

Most stories in this collection are narrated in the first person, placing the reader squarely within the consciousness of Hoffman’s workingmen. Hoffman reconciles often-conflicting impulses of literary style and realistic content, infusing his characters’ perspectives with gritty realism and transcendent epiphany. In “We Ride Back,” a group of unemployed laborers steal tools from half-finished suburbs in the hopes of pawning them for a few bucks. The unnamed narrator describes the search for tools in language that is simple yet evocative:

We hunt closets. We hunt basements. We hunt cabinets and garages and behind the furnace. We hunt alone, but there’s Lizzy’s flashlight sparking up the basement window next door, or maybe that’s Cal’s house. Neighbors of the absent. Not so much alone as apart. Not so much apart as departmentalized, delegated, defined by what we don’t do anymore, defined by what we find. And we find lots. (86)

These thieves are victims of the economy, the Recession, the loss of jobs and identities. Stealing is a way to fight back, to take revenge, to find an identity, even as an outlaw. In passages such as these, Hoffman inhabits the consciousness of everyday people, expertly and subtly infusing their observations with broader truths.

One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist offers fiction as truth. Here, Hoffman proposes a philosophy of work and identity that transcends the realities of the work-a-day world without crossing into the unbelievable, thus grounding his “working” philosophy in the pragmatic reality of daily life and its ordinary profundities.

Review of The Red Parts By Maggie Nelson

In 1969, Jane Mixer, a University of Michigan law student, was found dead: shot twice through the head, strangled, and abandoned in a cemetery. Jane was thought to be one of a series of young women murdered by a man known as the Ypsilanti Ripper, who was caught and sentenced to life in prison in 1970. However, in 2005, Jane’s family received a call from a police detective, explaining that Jane had not, in fact, been murdered by the Ypsilanti Ripper, but by another man. The detective had spent the past five years revisiting Jane’s case, and now felt that there was “every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion.”

The Red Parts is an attempt by Maggie Nelson, Jane’s niece, to examine and understand the feeling of trading one tragedy for another, and of living with the loss of someone she never had the chance to meet. This mulling-over includes chapters of Nelson’s own life—her own “red parts”—that raise questions about inherited trauma, about unhappiness, about conflation of experience. Nelson remains preoccupied with the notion that she is not the best person to be chronicling Jane’s story—that she may not, in fact, have the right to do so— even though this is the second time she has undertaken such a chronicling.

In 2005, when the police detective contacted her family, Nelson was on the cusp of publishing a poetry collection, Jane: A Murder, a lyric response to the lingering questions surrounding her aunt’s death. “Jane is about identification, not fusion,” Nelson explains, continuing, “In the book, I don’t try to speak for her, but rather to let her speak for herself, through her journal entries.” In The Red Parts, which followed in 2007, Nelson’s voice and perspective take center stage. This new edition, a reissue from Graywolf Press, is a return to the pressing question of how to relate a true story that comes with a new preface, which asks, “What effect do years, even decades, have on a piece of writing that self-consciously attests to the turbulent, raw, and rushed circumstances of its composition and publication?”

Review of Ciao, Suerte by Annie McGreevy

Near the end of Annie McGreevy’s debut novella, Ciao, Suerte, a young woman named Inés reflects on the ways her life has changed since meeting her boyfriend, Miguel. They are two twenty-somethings living in Madrid—she a local, he a wealthy émigré from Patagonia—and with their union Inés finds that “the fear of nothing, the fear of falling and falling and never hitting the ground…[has] lessened.” However, any gratefulness Inés feels is tempered by disdain, as Miguel’s indifference forces her to admit her own vulnerability: “she is deeply, viscerally offended that he doesn’t feel it too,” this lessening of fear.

Ciao, Suerte concerns itself with our persistence in policing the feelings of those we love. Critics have noted the novella’s political preoccupations—it concerns the fallout of the real-life military usurpation of Argentina’s government in the late 1970s, the consequences of which reverberate to the narrative’s present-day of 2003—but the story is arguably only nominally about national politics: the sundry sins of Argentina catalyze, but do not necessarily overshadow, the various emotional exploitations perpetrated by the main characters.

These characters revolve around Miguel, and project their deepest longings and aspirations onto him. Adopted by a prominent Patagonian businessman and his wife, Miguel is the biological son of two members of the Montoneros, a group that opposed the Argentinian military’s rise to power. His birth parents, Alejandro and Sabine, were captured and murdered by the government—and Alejandro himself is the son of two wealthy Argentinians, Beatriz and Giancarlo. Their marriage dissolves in the opening pages of the novella as a result of Beatriz’s concomitant grief at the loss of her son and obsession over finding the grandchild her husband “campaign[s] to try to convince her…was never born.”

Here we get our first inkling of what this story is really about, as Giancarlo laments that “he had not understood how to save [Beatriz]” in the wake of the loss of their son. Giancarlo represents another element of love, the ways in which we are bound—by ideology, by affinity, by genetics—to other people, and the ways in which we fail to meet the expectations they place upon us.

Ciao, Suerte is largely about thwarting expectations—amongst the characters themselves, and for us as readers. The novella’s centerpiece is the reunion of Beatriz and Miguel; she has found him through Argentina’s Grandparents Index, a DNA database to which Miguel had unknowingly given a sample. In the hands of a writer less subtle than McGreevy, more concerned with the sensational or sentimental, Miguel would be flabbergasted at the appearance of his heretofore unheard-of grandmother, but excited to learn more about his biological parents—and Beatriz would be ecstatic at the opportunity to know the young man who shares so much in common with her beloved son.

Such a pat conclusion to Beatriz’s journey would be impossible: her own feelings for Alejandro, let alone his progeny, are deeply conflicted. In some ways, she blames her son for his own death; she rues the “overconfident smile…Alejandro wore on his face until the day he was killed, probably” and sees Miguel as “a posh, futuristic version of Alejandro” who is somehow “more relaxed.” This relaxation insults Beatriz, who discerns in her grandson an undeniable phoniness:

“He’s got the manners of rich kids. The manners she had when she was a rich kid. Polite, but with a mechanical sincerity. Does he use this shit on other people? Does he think he’s a European? Does it work? It must.”

For Beatriz, who has spent over twenty years surveying “[c]hilden on the street in Rosario with Alejandro’s white skin and floppy hair” in the hopes that one of them “might be [her] grandchild,” her disappointment with Miguel is not only unexpected, or heartbreaking—but also a comment on the unrealistic expectations she has placed on this encounter, and this young man, in the first place. Over a strained lunch in Madrid, Beatriz must contain her impulse “to reach out and bring [Miguel] to her, hug him until he sees what she sees, knows what she knows;” in the face of such unguarded, and fundamentally selfish, love, can we really blame Miguel for his aloof detachment?

Beatriz’s desire to shape Miguel to her own specifications is reflected in Inés, who understands upon watching Miguel flirt with an old romantic fling that “she’s falling in love with him…because she has never before had this intense desire to erase a man’s past.” Throughout the novella, parallels between Inés and Beatriz abound. A native of Madrid, Inés must contend with “run[ning] into some member of her extended family on the street or the metro” and “look[ing] across the dinner table at her brother and…see[ing] her own face.” Compare this with Beatriz’s compulsive need to scour the faces of Argentinian children in the hopes of seeing Alejandro’s reflected back at her, a “relentlessness” for which Beatriz chides herself near the novella’s end: Inés’s close family ties are a source both of comfort and that “extreme fear” she expects Miguel’s presence in her life to ameliorate.

And what of Miguel? As Giancarlo reflects on his fatherly feelings for Alejandro, he expresses frustration at being “hopelessly in unrequited love with a careless person.” It is this carelessness that binds Miguel to his biological father, but while Alejandro channeled his energies into political activism, Miguel spends a year futzing around Europe before starting law school. Alejandro dies for a cause that Miguel dismisses to Beatriz, claiming the Montoneros “talked too much.” Miguel proves himself shallow, unambitious, and relatively unremarkable: the antithesis of what a reader might expect of the man upon whom Beatriz and Inés have hitched so many hopes and dreams.

McGreevy rounds out Ciao, Suerte’s collection of characters with someone else who has devoted himself to a callous entity: Eduardo, a senile former military officer currently languishing in an Argentinian retirement community. Eduardo—the man directly responsible for the dirty adoption that stripped Miguel from his family—emerges as one of the novella’s most sympathetic characters. At turns hilariously contemptible and oddly humane, Eduardo is a stand-in for military corruption and the feebleness of aging, outmoded politics: he spends his days reflecting on women like Sabine, imprisoned by the military complex for treason, women who “had done something awful against the state, though now Eduardo can’t remember what it was.”

If the sections told from Eduardo’s point of view lend the story its highest moments of satire, they also present a twisted commentary on the events unfolding between Beatriz, Miguel, and Inés in Madrid. In imagining the successful lives of the children whose adoptions he facilitated, Eduardo reflects that “[p]eople were so amazing, and there were a million different ways to love them, even the ones you didn’t know.” This belief is shared with Beatriz, who spends decades loving an imagined grandchild only to find herself disappointed in the real-life Miguel.  Eduardo also deems the female rebels “nice girls who just got caught up with the wrong men”—a designation that might as easily apply to Inés in her single-minded pursuit of Miguel.

Although Eduardo’s comment is sexist, stripping these women of their ideological agency in perceiving them as victims of deceptive and politically-motivated men, in many ways Inés is indeed subject to Miguel’s whims. She longs to be invited back to Patagonia with him when he leaves Europe, hoping for “[a] thing that will tie him to her irrevocably.” While Inés serves doubly as a mirror of Beatriz’s insecurities and a foil for her familial isolation, at times the character feels more like a plot device than a fully-realized human being.

Inés is one of roughly six characters whose thoughts thread through Ciao, Suerte, and the novella ends with her. However, it begins with Beatriz, the undeniable heart of the story, who

“gets into bed and doesn’t get out for over a week except to use the bathroom. The only other time she was still for so long was when she’d had her wisdom teeth removed as a teenager and her father said, Think of it like four separate gunshot wounds inside your mouth. That’s what you’re recovering from….This is the same, Beatriz thinks now, thirty-five years later—it’s like bleeding inside my own head. But this will never end.”

Ciao, Suerte is primarily a narrative of grief, most potently the grief of a mother who has lost a child. Such losses are the basis of any number of literary works—that a child’s death forever alters the fabric of his or her parents’ lives is by now accepted truth—and so it is particularly noteworthy when a writer finds a fresh way to describe the mental and physical particularities of a familiar tragedy. McGreevy does her best work, and wields her novella’s true emotional power, when she uncovers these new ways of telling us truths about love and loss that we already know, but have failed so far to explain.

 

Review of Fox Tooth Heart: Stories by John McManus

John McManus’s third story collection, Fox Tooth Heart, features surreal conceits very much at home in the contemporary short story—snotty, preteen clones of Thomas Jefferson mocking each other over video chat, a psychic elephant laying a major guilt trip on a dissipated rocker. It’s delightful, but the most meaningful skewing of reality in the collection is subtle and pervasive—a slip in the barrier between thoughts, fears, and the world. Again and again in these nine stories, a fantasy or fear becomes manifest seemingly as a result of the thought itself. Abused teenage girls fantasize about murdering their rapists but then undertake a multi-state bloodbath in “Betsy from Pike.” A teenage boy worries he may have fatally injured a neighbor until he “heard on the TV news that, in a freak accident, a local boy had suffered testicular trauma, gone into shock, and passed away.” Even when reality holds, paranoia threatens to consume these characters. In McManus’s stories, the slipperiness of thoughts and action is a source of both horror and a complicated power.

Early in the collection’s third story, “Bugaboo,” a man is invited into the lair of a stranger who shares his name. The “other Max” shows the narrator an array of “a guy who looked like a skillet from overhead, his arm stretching out from a circle of black hair.” The narrator is watching his own image, from when he considered suicide an hour earlier. This moment of alienation from self and fascination with that alienated self, captured in a matter-of-fact but precise image, is exemplary of the interrogation of selfhood McManus works through these tense stories. The story of Max the narrator loops back in time, coils around this moment before the surveillance array, and spirals forward again in a loop too complicated to explain here. By the end of the story, Max seems both paranoid and trapped in a world of repeating signs. It’s among the strongest stories in the collection, in large part due to the relentlessness with which McManus leans into this paranoia.

While bodily grotesquery abounds in these stories, (a severed tendon paralyzes a child’s finger, and the “limp finger bounce[s] with every bump” in “Cult Heroes”), it’s not the violence, but the density of doppelgangers that seem to suggest McManus’s engagement with the gothic in the collection. One of the sex offenders in “The Gnat Line” assumes the stories of his neighbors’ crimes at therapy groups. In “Gainliness,” a boy assumes the name of his mother’s friend, dead from AIDS, to flirt with one of his twin neighbors, who attract and repel him with their own names—Albert and Sievert—and the weight gain and insanity that they seem to trade off. “That was when a wild idea grew in Victor. ‘You don’t even have a twin,’ he said. ‘You and Sievert are the same.’ Sievert had liked Victor because Sievert was Albert.” It’s a moment that seems to capture some of the preoccupations of the collections—delusion that is indistinguishable from insight, identity as a code. Like “Bugaboo,” “Gainliness” stands out for how unequivocally McManus embraces these guiding uncertainties. These stories share a productive looseness to their plotting, one that creates space for them to be shaped by their anxieties.

McManus draws his title from the Tennessee William’s lines that serve as its epigraph: “Men are made of rock and thunder: / threat of storm to labor under. / Cypress woods are demon-dark: / boys are fox-teeth in your heart,” and the questions of adolescence and masculinity are indeed where McManus puts these dizzyingly constructed monuments to uncertainty about identity and self to most meaningful work. In a collection where the power seems so dangerous thoughts can kill, even perfectly realized masculinity is suspect. For McManus’s characters, masculinity seems fraught with pitfalls. From other people and internalized voices, the men and boys in the stories are constantly policing their manliness. After commandeering another man’s phone in part to flirt with his violent, demeaning lover on a Grindr-like app, the protagonist of “Blood Brothers,” thinks, “[t]o be a pussy was to answer, ‘Just kidding,’ so I hit ‘ignore,’ found a jug of bourbon, took a swig.” That McManus sees the humorous extremes of masculine posturing (had to be bourbon—clear liquor wouldn’t do) does not keep him from compassion for the extent to which these are fundamental, serious questions for his characters, ones that come with special complications for the young gay men he’s often writing about.

The thematic cohesion of the collection is certainly to McManus’s credit, but also means that the collection’s less gripping stories end up occasionally feeling redundant. “The Ninety-Fifth Percentile,” in particular, covers similar ground as stronger stories—erotically charged teenage friendships, self-destructive risk-taking, class and adolescent identity—to less biting end. The plot is slight and the story’s callow protagonist cannot really hold his own against the difficult, memorable men and boys who people the rest of the collection. It is also one of few times when McManus’s treatment of substance abuse ends up feeling like it muddies the story.

Narratives of addiction and intoxication are strong throughout the rest of the collection. The narrator of “Elephant Sanctuary” assures his father after his first blackout at twelve, “‘Yeah, I’ve had fun,’ I replied, standing up, and out of shame or stubbornness I’d been saying similar things ever since.” McManus gets paradoxical addict self-awareness, without buying into a familiar idea of romanticized drinking. “Elephant Sanctuary” also exemplifies McManus’s use of blackouts and the consciousness-addling effects of drugs to toy with the progression of time and plot in satisfying ways.

There are times when McManus’s vertiginous slippage between thought and action seems to allow his characters to skitter away from questions of responsibility just when the story’s most need reckoning. When the convicted sex criminal, Stephen, in “The Gnat Line,” finally recalls exposing himself to a school bus, “[b]lind strings in one hand, pot handle dangling from the other, Stephen wondered what he’d meant to do.” It seems implausible, but perhaps more importantly, it fails to answer questions about the distinctions Stephen has drawn between himself and other sex offenders. On the one hand, it’s an impressive exercise in imaginative empathy for perpetrators of violence. But at a certain point there’s something queasy about the way in which these fully realized predators’ victims drop out of the collection’s moral arithmetic, particularly in “Elephant Sanctuary,” where killing, semi-accidentally, his (mostly off the page and shrewish) girlfriend in a car accident seems significant for inspiring a male musician to write a new album.

This sense of moral unsettledness is certainly central to McManus’s project here. That it is intentional alone doesn’t inherently justify these occasional erasures of the victims, but at its most successful, this works less as expression of concern for the well-being of brutalizers, but rather an examination of the inherent violence of the narcissistic inner life—one made more uncomfortable by including the reader in its critique. Sentence by sentence, the stories are precise and efficient, most astounding in probing the horror when the boundaries between the mind and the world are less stable than we’d like them to be.

Review of Loving Day by Mat Johnson

Warren Duffy, the narrator of Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, is caught in the middle. The son of a black mother and a white father, Warren compares himself to a “Latvian rugby player” and describes his physical appearance as a “racial optical illusion” akin to those drawings that can look like either an old crone or a beautiful young girl. At the novel’s beginning, he’s just returned to Philadelphia from Wales to attend to his dead father’s affairs, which consist primarily of a crumbling old mansion in Germantown. He intends to stay only long enough to patch the place up and then burn it down. He’s broke and in debt to his ex-wife for a considerable amount of money. Arson seems like a solution to his problems.

Working a comic book convention to make some cash (he’s a failed artist), Warren is confronted by two strangers: one is a beautiful woman who shows up to a panel he’s on with other black artists to ask him about being biracial. He tells her he’s not biracial; he’s black, end of story. The other, Tal, is the seventeen-year-old daughter he never knew he had, the product of a brief teenage tryst with a girl named Cindy, who is now dead. Tal shows up on the rotting porch of the crumbling mansion, looking for refuge. He takes her in, and his plans change.

Convinced that Tal needs a crash course in her newly discovered heritage, Warren wants first to send her to an Afrocentric charter school, and then, when she rejects it as “too black,” allows her to attend The Mélange Center, a school for biracial people whose “goal is to overcome the conflict of binary” and to find “sacred balance” between their black and white identities.

The school’s physical location mirrors its students’ sense of cultural dislocation: The Mélange Center consists of a bunch of mobile homes illegally stationed in a public park. The Center’s very existence is provisional, dependent on a protracted court battle that cannot be won, but that keeps the school protected as long as it wages on.

Tuition is expensive, so Warren takes a job at the school teaching art in exchange for a discount. The kids at Mélange take Portuguese (the justification being that Brazil is somewhere where mixed race people will blend right in), make graphic novels about mixed race communities in history, and take a hilarious test to determine whether they’re too “black-identified” (Warren) or “white-identified” (Tal, who was raised by her Jewish grandpa). Oh, and the beautiful woman who confronted Warren at the convention is now his co-worker and teacher, Sunita Habersham.

Loving Day moves at a rapid clip as Warren tries to connect with both Tal and Sunita (albeit in very, very different ways), plot the perfect arson to burn down his dad’s decaying house, and reckon with his own increasingly muddled ideas about who he is. Identity plays a central role in Loving Day. Warren makes terrible fun of the Center, even as he’s drawn in by its promises, because he’s drawn in by its promises. Despite declaring, at the novel’s outset, that race in America is about choosing sides, about picking a team, he can’t help but notice the effect the Mélange Center has on him:

The very idea, of creating a tribe where I would fully belong, of changing my definition to fit me instead of the other way around, terrifies me. It scares me because it’s not crazy. It’s just priced at abandoning my existing identity and entire worldview.

Johnson confronts issues of identity head-on without ever coming off as preachy or didactic. Part of this is due to Warren’s first person narration: his intense self-awareness, both defensive and crippling, is the perfect vehicle for extended riffs on the performance of identity. Warren knows this particular dance better than almost anyone: he’s painfully conscious of how he’s perceived by everyone he meets. In the book’s early pages, he describes a meeting with a fellow black comic book artist:

What I’m really doing is letting my black voice come out, to compensate for my ambiguous appearance. Let the bass take over my tongue. Let the South of Mom’s ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men could pull off.

Tal is an excellent foil for Warren’s hyper-awareness: she’s mostly clueless, unprepared for the implications of her newfound paternity, and, at the novel’s start, constantly saying the wrong thing. Her clumsiness when it comes to matters of race (her own, Warren’s, somebody else’s) compounds the inherent awkwardness of a father and daughter trying to connect after seventeen years as strangers. Through their affectionate if testy exchanges, Johnson highlights the subtle ways racism may permeate the most benign interactions.

The thorny nature of racial identity has long been a theme in Johnson’s work, and Loving Day deals explicitly with themes only ever implicit in previous works. In Incognegro, Johnson’s 2008 graphic novel, a light-skinned reporter (loosely based on the NAACP’s Walter White) goes undercover as a white man to investigate lynchings in the Deep South. In the 2011 novel Pym, a biracial academic is denied tenure because he studies Edgar Allen Poe instead of hip-hop and won’t serve on the college’s diversity committee. In these works, the characters’ blackness is never questioned; they are mistaken for white, they pass for white, but they never consider that they could possibly be white, or even half-white.

The satire of Loving Day is milder than that of Pym, and its characters’ schemes notably more realistic, if no less questionable. Unlike Pym, Loving Day has no Thomas Kinkade-esque commercial painter who creates a Biodome in the Arctic or a race of ice giants called Snow Honkies who love junk food so much that Zebra Cakes become a kind of currency. In fact, almost everything about Loving Day feels exceptionally plausible. In the era of Tumblr, where every single identity—racial, sexual, or otherwise—can be meticulously delineated, explicated, and parsed, the idea of a school dedicated to finding balance between identities (black and white) long considered mutually exclusive doesn’t seem so far-fetched, or even a bad idea. I had to remind myself, or allow Warren to remind me, that this was supposed to be crazy.

Johnson writes with startling efficiency; within the first two chapters he’s fitted Warren with a dead father, an old mansion, a long-lost daughter, and a new love interest. Later he adds possibly copulating ghosts of America’s interracial “first couple,” séances, and elaborate tattoos that make the Center’s students’ ambiguous heritage part of their flesh. It all culminates in a celebration-cum-fundraiser-cum-protest on the book’s eponymous holiday, which commemorates the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage throughout the US.

Nonetheless, Loving Day, for all its lively plumbing of identity, remains a novel about parents and children. Tal and Warren, both recently orphaned, try to love and understand each other across generations and ingrained cultural identities. Warren, in turn, tries to understand his flawed and complicated parents. Johnson writes about loss with remarkable insight, about the way that parts of our history disappear without our noticing. Warren is grieving for his father, and also for his mother who died long ago, and for his ex-wife in Wales who does not miss him, and even for Tal’s mother, the girl he barely knew and hadn’t spoken to in years. While the Mélange Center focuses on finding that “sacred balance” between identities, Loving Day ends by reaffirming the humanity of all peoples, regardless of the way they present themselves to the world, or the way the world sees them.

Loving Day has been optioned by Showtime to be a television series, and reading the book, it’s easy to see why: one can imagine more for Tal, Warren, Sunita, and the Mélange Center. Johnson has created a rich world full of dramatic possibilities. It will be interesting to see how that world changes and shifts to fit a more open-ended format.

Review of Reveille by George David Clark

Each blurb on the back cover of George David Clark’s Reveille—winner of the 2015 Miller Williams Poetry Prize—identifies the surreal, dreamlike element of these poems, an element that is of our world, but not quite. Reveille, French for “to wake up,” is just that—a call to attention. It is also a view of this and other worlds that reaches past literal experience and into the realm of the imagined. But this is not a surreal book. We aren’t being asked to leave realism behind. Rather, the poet asks that we reconsider boundaries of our existence, of our realities, of our imaginations, and of our conceptions of religion and reverence. To do any of that, we must, first, wake up.

Review of Yearling by Lo Kwa Mei-en

Lo Kwa Mei-en’s inaugural poetry collection Yearling asks no easy questions and provides no single answer—rather, it gives us duality warped over and over. She moves effortlessly between the violently sexual and sexually violent, the poems overlapping one another, not unlike an embroidered backstitch. Images and language are reused and re-imagined; we never read them the same way twice. The sea is dark and ruthless in one moment and the tides are agents of change, “made in the image of a shut door,” in the next. Embedded in this interweaving is the glimpse of a family narrative, of migration, and of the cyclical nature of a woman’s place in that journey. The speaker never shies away from self-damnation (“I am half-spent and hell-bright as / the bad ones are, mother, a flicker deeper than the sea”) and we feel the crushing weight of feminine expectation in “Rara Avis Decoy”: “My name is I know not what I am / as a country of mothers and fathers comes down.” Mei-en gives us a grim and foreboding portrait of the future in “The Extinction Diaries: Psalm” when “the white coin of vertebrae // in a bowl of hips tells the future. May the meek inherit / something dangerous. May I.”

Review of North Dixie Highway by Joseph Haske

Newly returned from the Bosnian war, Buck Metzger can’t sleep. His waking life seems to be a mix of old and new nightmares, old and new dreams—some involving revenge, some involving pretty girls who live and breathe the ether of literature, and some just memories that float in the landscape of his mind like boats on the fresh water of lakes Huron and Michigan. North Dixie Highway is Joseph Haske’s debut novel, and it does not fail to beguile. The author starts his writing career with a bang, as the narrative is crisp and flowing, full of disquietude and searching, but also replete with fast-moving scenes of family life, war, old feuds, childhood haunts, infatuations leading nowhere, and the present-day meandering roads that the young narrator tries to sort through in his attempt to put his life back together.

Review of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems by James Baldwin

For James Baldwin’s many devotees, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems is representative of the American novelist and essayist we all know: the narrative voice in Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and the unabashed writer-activist of The Fire Next Time (1963). As we look back to what we know of Baldwin’s work and style, Jimmy’s Blues (2013) shows us the parts of his writing that have been overlooked: a poetic speaker, for instance, who brings blues and jazz into the sounds and stories of this collection. When Beacon Press published the first edition of Jimmy’s Blues in 1983, four years before Baldwin’s death, the majority of Baldwin’s readership did not perceive him as a poet. He was instead considered a strong, clear narrative voice and a witness to how Americans hated and loved one another. This collection is emblematic of the narrative flow Baldwin brings from his fiction and non-fiction into poetry; it is also evidence that as a novelist and poet Baldwin’s voice is always consistent.

Review of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014. 169 pp. $20.00, paper.

Six chapters into her latest book, Claudia Rankine writes, “It is the White Man who creates the black man. But it is the black man who creates…This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.” Beautiful, she writes, and I repeat it to myself. Again. Reading this moment in Rankine’s work, I feel as if I’ve earned something, as if she is finally offering me, the reader, the consolation I’ve hungrily and anxiously been waiting for since the book’s terse epigraph from Sans Soleil: “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” But full consolation doesn’t ever seem possible or even desirable for the speaker, such as when the “new therapist [who] specializes in trauma counseling” answers her front door and yells at the speaker, “Get away from my house,” and, “What are you doing in my yard?” only to be chastened by the realization that this nonwhite trespasser is actually her new client. In consolatory reply, the therapist utters the ineffectual apology: “I am so sorry, so so sorry” to the silent speaker. Thus ends the first section of Rankine’s book. We realize that consolation never counts in moments when people fail to see you.

Review of Under the Water Was Stone by William Stratton

Every so often, a photograph becomes more than the moment it captured. It’s yellowed from hanging on the wall of a chain-smoking aunt, or its edges are wavy from that time the basement flooded. These types of heirlooms are faded, worn, sometimes recolored or restored—like our memories of them. They take on a history, a weight of their own. And in saving them, and more importantly, in sharing them—in passing them hand-to-hand around the table amid reactions of reminiscence, laughter, and loss—we carry that weight together. We find strength. William Stratton’s debut book of poetry, Under the Water Was Stone, evokes this feeling, seating the reader at a table among friends sharing stories of struggles and triumphs. In a striking synthesis of voices, Stratton delivers poems that show immense tenderness, sorrow, joy, and above all else, strength.

These poems, and Stratton’s book as a whole, are fortified through the effective contrast of tones, perspectives, formats, and subjects both within individual poems and among the poems themselves. Arranged in five sections, “Family,” “Friends Beloved,” “Self,” “The World,” and “Home,” the structure of Under the Water Was Stone provides a frame without limiting flexibility. Poems about loss and family benefit from the contrast of love poems and lyric observations of the world—yet because everything fits into the sectional structure, even poems with very different tones or subjects support the work as a whole rather than seeming out of place.

Review of Abide by Jake Adam York

You don’t need to look far to find Jake Adam York’s posthumous collection Abide described as an elegy for the poet himself. For some, this may be a familiar tune, bringing to mind Larry Levis’s Elegy, also published posthumously and described similarly. But a careful reading of Abide rejects the urge to position York as the focus of the book’s attentions.

His project—an ambitious, career-spanning one, of which this book is merely the latest installment—is a series of elegies for the martyrs of the American Civil Rights movement. York’s attention to the individual martyr is what empowers the project beyond simple gesture and into heartfelt mourning: those who are elegized are named specifically—John Earl Reese, Medgar Evers, William Moore, among others—and their stories are given intimate, sacred attention.

Review of August Kleinzahler’s The Hotel Oneira

August Kleinzahler. The Hotel Oneira. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013. 112 pp. $24.00, hardcover; $15.00, paperback; e-Book, $9.99.

August Kleinzahler’s most recent collection of poetry, The Hotel Oneira, is saturated with images of weather. More particularly, it is saturated with the often discordant prosody of storms and the audial images created through reverberations in the lulling patterns of rain. Kleinzahler’s poems present freakish, operatic movement as well as the gradual revelations of images/objects that wind and rain manifest. In “Rain,” we see and hear this effect, which reveals “M. Francis Ponge, exemplar of phenomenology / and the breathing of things” as if Ponge were a secret object himself, who waits to appear

until sufficiently dark, as if at the beginning of a show,
and with the sound of it the only sound.

might one begin to detect his outline in the rain,
like an image hidden in a picture puzzle,
slipping about, darting like a pike,
over the hoods and under the chassis of parked cars

Review of The Small Blades Hurt by Erica Dawson

Erica Dawson. The Small Blades Hurt. Evansville, Indiana: Measure Press, 2013. 66 pp. $20.00, Hardback.

Erica Dawson’s latest book whirls us like a drunken line dancer whose skillful footwork veers in and out of formal composure and into wild, playful lines and dark truths. In many ways, the book follows the narrative of her first collection, but Dawson isn’t embodying that Big-Eyed Afraid speaker anymore. Her lines possess a palpable confidence, a “tendency to lead” that comes from years of experience as a formalist writer. Dawson can swerve between lines and still keep the beat. She is as comfortable quoting Shakespeare and Whitman as she is singing every word to “Wagon Wheel” at the top of her lungs, no matter if the song’s “spokes [have] spun the road enough.” In the crown of sonnets in “New NASA Missions Rendezvous with Moon” she creates lines such as “Where there is space, there is, no doubt, a death / In the afternoon.” The bodies in The Small Blades Hurt search for those little deaths because “each mission is a tryst.”

Review of Daylight Savings by Robert Gray

Robert Gray. Daylight Savings. George Braziller, Inc, 2013. 113 pp. $15.95, paper.

Robert Gray is one of Australia’s most celebrated poets, but Daylight Savings, which consists of forty poems spanning his nearly forty-year career, is his first book to be published in America. At first I wondered how these poems would translate to my own experience, which has taken place so far from where the poems were written. References to his home country do abound; Gray touches on Australian culture and history, especially focusing on its landscape and unique plant and animal life (there are, indeed, kangaroos). But these poems are not limited by their geography. They boil down to the essentials—nature, death, art, love—in a way that reaches far beyond their context.

Working for The Man All Over Again: A Review of Ray McManus’s Punch

Ray McManus. Punch. Spartanburg: Hub City Press, 2014. 72 pp. $15.00, paper.

From the cover photo to the opening epigraph, we know that this is a book devoted to the life of a working man. Punch is a distinctly American book in that way: it contains the poetry of a man destined to change water in a field, to wrestle with barbed wire, to know the hours put into the job because there’s a piece of cardstock with his name on it as well as the days of the week, which he punches every morning and then again every night.

Review of Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke

Adrian Matejka. The Big Smoke. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2013. 128pp. $18.00, paper.

Adrian Matejka’s third poetry collection, The Big Smoke, dramatizes the physically grueling, racially charged, and ethically complex boxing career of the first African American world champion, Jack Johnson. With the exception of the closing poem, the voices of Johnson and his supporting players tell their own stories. For Johnson, that act of gaining sovereignty over the literary representation of his life substantiates his masculinity and his contested humanity. Early on, the reader will notice the subtle accumulation of the phrase “they said” in various forms. Johnson recognizes that his image, constructed by hands other than his own, fuels a corrupt campaign. That fabricated image corroborates a racist ideology that refuses to identify people of color as intellectually sound and morally upright individuals. If Johnson is indeed an inherently deviant beast, then the world can devalue his greatness as a boxer and negate his human status; it does not have to undertake the mentally strenuous mission of examining its belief systems.

Desert Teeming with Life: Review of Without Compass by Benjamin Miller

Benjamin Miller. Without Compass. New York: Four Way Books, 2014. 72 pp. $15.95, paper.

In Benjamin Miller’s engrossing debut, his speaker lives in what one title calls the “Wake of Avoidable Tragedy.” I hear only one speaker, because the voice is so consistent from poem to poem. Stuck in a psychological desert, he occasionally doubts that a way out exists and feels as if he’s without a compass. More often, though, he’s aware that his compass may be broken, pointing in the wrong direction. Or that he can only properly use the working device—know where to go and why—after honing his ability to exist in uncertainty, what Keats called negative capability. “One-eyed crabs clung to my fingers,” he says, “And I named them. This is wait. This, delay.” He puts the thing away to be intentionally without compass but then glances at it from time to time. Eventually, he trusts it.

Review of domina Un/blued by Ruth Ellen Kocher

Ruth Ellen Kocher. domina Un/blued. North Adams, VT: Tupelo Press, 2013. 81 pp. $16.95, paper.

Ruth Ellen Kocher’s fourth book, domina Un/blued is an austere, surreal, imaginative exploration of historical servitude, dominant/submissive relationships, and found/lost personhood that poet Lynn Emanuel justly selected to win Tupelo Press’s coveted Dorset Prize. Often, modern readers of poetry seem to approach a book as if the text must prove itself to the reader, as if it must offer itself up and unspool meaning in accordance with the reader’s preconceived conventions. Such an approach will be unsuccessful with domina Un/blued. One must, rather, offer oneself up to this work.

domina Un/blued is, for Kocher, “an experiment in palimpsestic writing” built upon/through fragments of two earlier manuscripts, Hybrids & Monsters and The Slave’s Notebook. In reading domina Un/blued, the notion of palimpsest comes through in several poems interrogating the act of translation, where the poem itself is a footnote to an exercise that is white space. In “D/domina: Issues Involving Translation,” the poem appears as white space interrupted only by footnotes at the bottom of each page, such as: “Exercise 3. / Possessive case for the word ‘slave’ does not exist in Italian. // The slave owned not own nor owns / Nor evolves. Nor provision any make consonant belonging.” Thus, even within the footnote to the white space, Kocher uses extended spacing between words to highlight the erasure inherent in the (dominant) enacting of translation. In “Translation Exercise Esercizio di traduzione,” Kocher creates a poem from two parallel columns of text, one English and one in Italian, both offering translations of the same line. For example:

it is hot è caldo
warm caldo
blazing sfolgorante
the handcuffs begin with me le manette iniziano con me
i am the lock and the key io sono la chiave e lo schiavo

 

By structuring her poem in this way, she permits—even encourages—readers to subvert the dominant linear reading of texts in favor of a more fluid, multiperspectival approach, where one could read the English column then the Italian column, or the English line then its accompanying Italian line before moving on, or, depending on one’s fluency and desire for language as sensual sound play versus meaning-making, one could move across these columns at will, without linear order.

While multiple poems involve Italian words, sometimes with translation (as above) and sometimes without, readers need not be fluent (or even familiar) with Italian to experience the impact of Kocher’s writing—one need only be open to loosening the quest for meaning (which is, perhaps, a quest for dominating) into a sensual receptivity to the pleasures of music. In “Translation Exercise II,” the lines “Some people I sweet delicate who would aggressively / animaleschi who would elegant refined who would sport,” and “I assure you that I like the game and fun the transgression me / irresistibilmente,” are amplified by the inclusion of Italian—which subverts the dominance of English even while offering readers word roots (“animal” and “irresistib[le]”) that make them participants in this elision of language.

Furthermore, Kocher’s use of white space is provocative throughout. In most of these poems, each present stanza is separated by enough white space to hold traditional stanza-break space plus an absent stanza, forcing readers to read absence as a presence and to submit to a magnified version of the delayed fulfillment we experience in stanza enjambment—a fine illustration of dominant/submissive relationships through both form and content.

Kocher’s background in classical literature and linguistics is apparent in this text, for she frequently returns to the Corinthian column (iconic structure of empire and civilization) and the theory that its design was inspired by a basket of acanthus leaves placed on the grave of a slave girl. “Un/blued” features three identical columns of text that begin: “the columns are / capped with / acanthus,” then repeat down the page “empire Empire / E/empire / empire Empire / E/empire,” before terminating in “baby, baby, o / baby / girl.”

Linguistic play abounds in works such as “D/domina’s Feet,” where Kocher writes, “These woods [period] All Woods [period] No / matter / How hard ‘All / Woods’ desires to be only wood all woods is all / woods.” In “D/domina,” Kocher uses transgressive capitalization to explore dominant/submissive relationships:

sorry to request
sorry to Y/you to be unworthy

(this morning on the train Y/you show M/me that Y/you are)
(this morning on the train Y/you yolk as uniform as the egg’s      shell)
i thank Y/you again
(the egg knows an order)

In the poem “Translation Exercise,” Kocher writes, “i am the slave and the key / the keys / i belong to / my self not my sex.” Speaking from a personhood where “Possessive case for the word ‘slave’ does not exist in Italian,” one must conclude that, since “black is only a thing the slave owns that is nothing,” the slave cannot even own the capital I. As an African American poet, Kocher’s astute exploration of historical servitude has significance for European and American readers.

Beyond Kocher’s complex theoretical and philosophical underpinnings, the musical, lyrical language glimpsed in her earlier books is vibrant and electric here. In “D/domina: Daughter,” she writes, “and within that conversion / your loss as a first nothingness.” In “D/domina: G/gnosis,” she weaves together image and lyric: “Her body / hid from its parents Forgot its sisters Bathed / each morning as though performing ritual // leaving Her body knew before she knew / Soon like hesitation It would forget return.” Repetition of sound and image works to evoke almost pre-lingual reverberations within the reader, again using language to destabilize itself, as in “D/domina: Look,” where readers find “grass nearby cut and clumped. grass clippings. grass smell. grass / green and gasoline. engine. night / streetlights come on // say night come on.” And, in “M/meditation I Dominance,” the poem subverts our expectations of agency by exploring the voices of temporal entities—those we may more often see as spaces for action, not as actors themselves: “The once has never said / Nor the next day stammered.”

In a world dominated, at times, by three-section manuscripts, Kocher’s choice to offer her collection without section breaks is effective. By doing so, she reaffirms the slipperiness of language, domination/submission, and identity—for can a poet ever say where one section’s themes/motifs end, with certainty? Can a poet’s work, which often arises from a swirl of influences lived, imagined, and co-constructed, be that easily partitioned? Such an act may be reductive, forcing the text to submit to reader expectations, and domina Un/blued, fierce in its beauty, will bow to no one.

And, as in her earlier books, Kocher proves that she knows how to close a collection, powerfully, in her last lines:

There is no field. There is no clover no green. You listen
anyway. Hear a voice follow you into the afternoon Language
crosses a clearing the stark way a thing revealed
when thinned clouds expose better light.
You the tree tip toward words as they bring outward
inner form.

In domina Un/blued, Ruth Ellen Kocher establishes herself as a sophisticated writer who holds a command of image, syntax, and line, even as she invites the text to de/stabilize this authority. What, then, can readers do, but submit to this destabilization as well?