Review of I Hold a Wolf By the Ears by Laura van den Berg

Throughout I Hold a Wolf By the Ears, Laura van den Berg’s new collection of short stories, the reader finds bits of evidence that something devastating has happened. “The bartender asked me to tell him my story, and I describe the places I have lived. Eight cities in 10 years. Many different jobs. Few possessions or attachments. I’ve had some drinks. I go on. ‘You on the run from something?’ the bartender asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, without hesitating.” These clues point to some missing piece at the center of these stories, and make the stories feel like mysteries. The reader’s primary interest, however, is not in solving what has happened, but in watching how the characters maneuver the fallout of their tragedies.

Like its characters, the stories revolve around some avoidance or failure. There’s a train that never comes, a doomed last trip, children that do or do not appear, absent sisters, and impersonators of the living and the dead. In each story, characters want to deceive themselves, believing that they can evade their problems.I did not want to confront whatever was happening in my neighbors apartment; I only wanted to get away.” These characters close their eyes against what haunts them in a desperate attempt to persevere. [The hypnotist] believed with all her heart that something unspeakably awful had happened to me and that my memory had concealed this awfulness, in an attempt to save my life, and that this unprocessed trauma was the source of all my troubles. After she said this, I refused to go under hypnosis. My commitment to the truth simply did not run that deep.”

These are case studies on the difficulty of holding pain in perpetuity, the way it “wants nothing more than to destroy your life.” The collection forms a catalogue of living with trauma, of finding a way to survive with one’s grief. I considered the possibility that our thoughts were the most important thing to know, because they made up the stories we told ourselves about the world and our place in it, what was possible and what was sacred and what was forbidden.” The lives, and in fact the very worlds, of these characters deform to accommodate what has become forbidden and sacred in the aftermath of devastation.

To avoid their pain, characters repeatedly escape into the safety of other lives.I cannot deny that I have always enjoyed being other people.” Inhabiting the lives of sisters, in particular, echoes throughout the book. The characters mirror and merge into the personas of their sisters, perhaps like how the sisters of trauma and grief, or the sisters of devastation and self-destruction sometimes merge. “I find a pair of opal earrings on [my sister’s] dresser, next to a photo of my sister and Pat. They are on a beach in southern Maine, smiling wide. I put the earrings on and I am surprised by their weight. [Their] bed is unmade. I get under the sheets.” Other times, characters try to evade pain by obliterating themselves. In the title story, a character hands over her passport to hotel reception and thinks about how happy she would be to leave the woman in that picture behind.” When one of the many therapists in these stories asks how a new coping method is going, the protagonist explains, “I felt obliterated,” then clarifies, “I told her it was working.”

Of course, just like in life, ignoring and denying their pain only worsens the lingering effects for these characters. Grief, especially when it was not properly tended, could turn even a reasonable human being hostile and confused.” And, as another therapist says, that which cannot be forgotten must be confronted.” But gore is hard to look at, and these characters have a relentless aversion to contending with their pain. In one story, a character admits she is being abused, but then takes it back. When later explaining why she retracted her admission, she says, “I wasn’t ready.” But once acknowledged and named, there is no way of really denying truth. “Once you have a thought like that, there is no turning back, there’s only pretending to.” And that pretending has reverberating repercussions. I didnt yet understand that refusing one kind of narrative could activate another.”

I Hold a Wolf By the Ears is riddled by its characters’ trauma and grief. The reader watches the characters maneuver the complicated task of living with their ghosts, sometimes closing their eyes against them, sometimes approaching the lurking shadows. I thought the universe had granted me a chance to remake my life,” a character says. Later, she laments, As it turned out, I have been doomed to live the same old story, with the same ending.” These stories examine characters as they try, fail, struggle, and persist against their histories. And the reader joins them in their grief, knowing that there is no simple escape from this kind of monster. I hold a wolf by the ears. She’d understood the phrase to mean something along the lines of—there is no easy way out.”

Review of In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s newest release, In the Dream House, is a haunting memoir of her experience with same-sex psychological abuse. The “Dream House” is literally where Machado’s unnamed partner lives, and figuratively a metaphor for the dreams the two had as a fresh couple, the dreams for an idealistic, romantic life together. The Dream House begins like a fairytale, but quickly turns into a nightmare. The house also serves as a symbol of Machado’s mind, which slowly becomes her own prison in a harrowing situation. 

Split into short chapters of one to ten pages, each section explores the Dream House from a different perspective. The chapter titled, “Dream House as Hypochondria,” for example, discusses Machado’s attempt to get mental help for her partner, and the chapter titled, “Dream House as Spy Thriller,” describes the shameful details of her relationship as a secret she has to hide from the world. Rather than following chronological order, chapters skip around in the narrative, instead ordered by intensity, as if following the flow of Machado’s own mind. The building intensity paired with the short chapter form allows the reader to quickly fly through the book.

Machado uses a second person perspective in order to help the reader place themselves in the situation. In situations of abuse, it is all too easy for readers to think that they would have seen the warning signs, that they would have left before it escalated. But by using the second person, Machado forces the reader to experience it. She demands that we go through the Dream House with her.

When we first meet the unnamed partner, she seems like an average person. She wears “white-blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail. She has a dazzling smile, a raspy voice that sounds like a wheelbarrow being dragged over stones. She is the mix of butch and femme that drives you crazy.” Machado then follows the progression of their relationship with interludes of her own thoughts. If she had been able to see into the future, would she have done anything differently? Is she a better person now, after having gone through the experience? Contrasted with the honeymoon phase narrated alongside them, such questions bring the reader a sense of imminent dread for what is about to come.

Machado interlaces her own narrative with research and thoughts on abusive same-sex relationships, a taboo subject. Often, when we think of an abusive relationship, the man is the perpetrator and the woman is the victim. If women are victims, how do abusive lesbian relationships exist? Stereotypes of lesbian relationships as men-free utopias are harmful to queer women, but so are stereotypes that one woman must be the “man” of the relationship. Because of the already existing misconceptions about abusive relationships, the abuser in same-sex relationships becomes the “man.” Machado struggles with these ideas throughout the memoir. By telling her story, she asks if she is bringing to light the experiences of hundreds of victims, or if she is strengthening the fallacy that same-sex relationships must follow heteronormative stereotypes.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Machado explains that she wants to provide a broader context, to convince the reader that her experience was not an anomaly.  She also provides research as a way to further her own understanding of the experience. “How can I understand it,” Machado said, “as not just a thing that happened to me, a discrete thing, but also in the context of history and in queer history, and in the history of gender?”

She understands it by writing through it. And through Machado’s own understanding, readers are transported into a world they may have never thought about. Machado comes to grips with the situation by morphing it into a narrative, a powerful tale to reach all types of readers. Readers who have never deeply considered what an abusive relationship can look like other than the stereotypical man-on-woman violence. Readers who have experienced an abusive relationship and are looking for a companion, someone who believes them. Readers trying to come to terms with the fact that lesbian relationships are not a romantic utopia, an escape from the problems associated with men. Machado has been each of these. By writing through her relationship and its subsequent abuse, Machado has created a poignant memoir that brings much-needed nuance to a larger dialogue on domestic violence and abuse. 

Review of The Crying Book by Heather Christle

For five years, Heather Christle embarks on an experiment, documenting and mapping each time she cries. This experiment, when shared with others, leads Christle to conversations with friends, to research, to her past, and ultimately to her debut nonfiction collection, The Crying Book. As a self-coined highly sensitive person, I was drawn in immediately. 

Her book, a segmented, meditative lyric essay, is a compilation of observations about crying. In her first meditation, she discusses how crying in public is a way to feel seen. A page later, she complicates her own experience with research, stating that crying in public often leads to “a worsening mood. You can be made to feel ashamed.” And yet, she continues, “criers report others responding with compassion, or what the study categorizes as ‘comfort words, comfort arms, and understanding.” Early on, she shows how complex the process of pain and crying can be. 

The form of the lyric essay allows Christle to accumulate a large quantity of material. Much of her book is focused in research, including but not limited to: psychologists, philosophers, and research studies; other writers and artists interrogating pain; politics and social movements; gender and racial inequalities; and murder, suicide, and death. 

Reading a lyric essay collection can often feel like a light whiplash, taking hard turns into seemingly unrelated topics. The build Christle organizes feels unending, encompassing so many crying-related topics. She touches on an almost exhausting number of examples, reminding me of how exhausting it is to feel such deep emotions. 

Christle writes about how tragic events, like the suicide of her friend, lead to despair and crying, showing how our emotions are often a response to the world around us. However, she also suggests that our emotions, when unable to be expressed, can be catalytic, and lead to violence. She writes: “They say perhaps we cry when language fails, when words can no longer adequately convey our hurt. When my crying is not wordless enough I beat my head with my fists.” Violence, onto the self, and to others, becomes a large theme present in her work. Christle balances research and narrative, sometimes simultaneously, to answer the question, Why? She continually interrogates, attempting to answer why she feels the way she does, why people take their lives, why people commit acts of violence, and more. She discusses Kent State, shows us a picture of a young woman “kneel[ing] beside the body of a slain student, her whole body an anguished question,” – Why? 

The way Christle weaves social issues and politics into her own narrative shows a universal hurting, and how powerless we can feel to violence. Through recognizing her own pain and digging into research, Christle has found a whole world, a history of people who have endured suffering. 

Kaveh Akbar, in his blurb of Christle’s work, suggests that The Crying Book is “about crying, yes, but secretly it’s a book about everything: pain, sleep, joy, despair, birth, art, exile, atrocity, language, weather, fish.” I am in awe of the multitudes this book contains. Christle addresses many topics, and yet her voice is constantly focused and microscopic. She spans centuries of history, but readers will never feel lost in time. 

Amidst the amount of research Christle compiles, the book is anchored by her own narrative, following the five-year timeline of her child, beginning with conception. While motherhood is only one of many themes in her book, Christle has created a subtle way to keep readers grounded in a form that can often be difficult to follow. 

The ability to jump from topic to topic requires trust in the reader that we will follow, and delicate attention to organization from the writer. The lyric essay, Christle’s especially, reminds me of the video game, Katamari Damacy, where players roll a sticky ball over random objects, growing and growing until it takes on the size of a planet. It’s a snowball effect – she collects research and stories, places them next to one another, and builds them into something whole.

Since reading Christle’s book, I have been fixated on her opening pages, which seem to resonate even louder the longer I’m away from it. I think of her opening pages when I read the news, when a friend confides in me, when I accidentally step on my dog’s tail. Crying is a reflection of our pain. And our pain, when not treated properly, can lead to violence. However, our pain, when shared, can be even more powerful. It can become a bridge, leading us to compassion, to comfort words, comfort arms, and understanding.

Review of Spirit Run: A 6,000 Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land by Noé Álvarez

Marathons echo across decades and centuries in Noé Álvarez’s debut book Spirit Run.  He tells the story of the 6,000-mile marathon he undertook at age 19 with Peace and Dignity Journeys (PDJ) — a First Nations/Native American movement in which participants run across North America to rekindle connections with their cultures, communities, and homelands.

Álvarez interweaves the journey of the run with stories of his upbringing in Yakima, Washington as a son of Mexican immigrants.  The marathon of the work day in the fruit-packing warehouses where Álvarez worked alongside his mother tests his stamina. He writes, “Only now, this summer, do I learn the pangs resulting from standing for long hours in a factory.  The uncirculated blood below the knees crushes my feet. I wonder how my mother has sustained this for as long as she has. Decades.” The work, like running, is physically and mentally grueling. Not only does this work set up Alvarez to endure the conditions of PDJ — running tens of miles every day with little food and rest — but it illustrates how the PDJ marathon is part of a much longer journey.  While Alvarez’s parents work in the fruit industry where “they become one monotonous shape, the shape of a worker,” Alvarez runs in PDJ to honor his parents labor and the marathon journeys they made to the U.S. His father not only made the journey once, but twice, after being stopped by immigration police and getting deported. Álvarez carries forward his parents’ work in the run and their stories in his writing, while also starting his own journey of reconnecting with the North American land that he has grown to hate — a land brutalized by corporate farming and used to wear down his own family.   

Starting in Prince George, British Columbia and running all the way to the Zaculeu Ruins in Guatemala, Spirit Run, written in short chapters, moves at a rapid pace through mountains, forests, deserts, beaches, and cities. Though the narrative is fast, it retains the meditative quality of journal entries grounded in place and people. Álvarez writes, “We continue to slip in and out of society like ghosts in the night, connecting our hearts and minds with the land and the many tribal peoples who cross our paths every single day, carrying the heavy thread of prayers of hundreds of individuals.” Hazel of the Stetliem Nation invites the runners to his mountain cabin where he serves them coffee and describes his role in reoccupying land and keeping watch over the forest. A community in Oaxaca prepares a feast of beans, rice, tortillas, and frijoles. Chapito from the Fisherman People of the Seri Nation accompanies the runners on a raft to Shark Island off the coast of Mexico where he was born. These individuals and communities give nourishment to the runners’ bodies and minds. In Spirit Run, the marathon is not just about the amazing endurance of an individual, but also about the survival of family, indigenous nations, and cultures. The success of the marathon depends on community.

Álvarez’s book is also a collective narrative, telling the stories of other PDJ indigenous runners alongside his own. Through his fellow runners’ stories, Álvarez highlights the diversity within the indigenous community and the different perspectives the runners bring to PDJ.  Indigenous women’s voices play an important role in these sections. Zyanya Lonewolf expresses anger toward the truck drivers who purposefully try to run her off the road while she runs. She explains she decided to join PDJ because her cousin Ramona Lisa Wilson was murdered on the Highway of Tears — a stretch of highway in British Columbia where many indigenous women have disappeared. Another runner, Ipana, decides to leave PDJ part way through the route to help her community in Alaska protect the caribou that have provided food and shelter to her people for centuries. 

 Every member has their own reasons for joining the run, as well as leaving it, and sometimes their philosophies clash. Some participants believe only the strongest runners should continue the run so as not to deplete food, water, and supplies. Others call out individuals for bullying runners and creating a toxic atmosphere.  These tensions are often aired in Circle — a space for the community of runners to gather, converse, and resolve conflict. While the various runners’ stories weave throughout the narrative, they are highlighted in the prologue and the last section, “Today.” Bookending the narrative with these stories reflects the communal Circle and shows how the runners’ life circumstances have changed from before the run to after it.  These stories of indigenous runners that Álvarez intertwines illustrate how running together is an act of collective struggle and liberation. In the words of Andrec, a PDJ member, “That’s the ceremony of running.”  

Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land will be on sale starting March 3, 2020. 

Review of Inside Ball Lightning by Rainie Oet

The title of Rainie Oet’s forthcoming “memoir in verse,” Inside Ball Lightning, is a good indicator of what to expect from the poems within — they enter suddenly, through an open space, and electrify us. 

These poems feel totally fresh: their presence on the page alive, crackling. They draw us in with the familiar, and then we are blinded, suddenly, in the glow of flashbulb memories rich with sensory detail and striking emotionality.

“If you see ball lighting, run/ because it can go through a/ window, any window,/ and erase you,” reads the introduction to Home Video Tape. The quote is attributed to “Mama,” and drives home a main theme of the book: the erasure of self, of others — of erasure and apparition both, through the strange twisting of memory. 

Erasure of Mark, a poem haunted by plains of white space, reads: “I’m hitting/ Mark’s surface/ Mark opens/ I fall in/ closes/ trapping me./ He kisses/ water:/ waves./ Mark/ is small/ “No.”/ Mark/ is dark.” These visions swell into a common memory, a feeling of loss. 

Oet, the author of three other books of poetry, traces this loss through the mist-paths of their childhood. In spiraling patterns, we experience their relationships with siblings, the roots of their family, and the gradual gathering of a separate self. 

Trauma passed through generations is cut through with concrete nostalgia — Neopets, Digimon, and the Powerpuff Girls all make appearances here. The imagery, both odd and recognizable, pulls us in. “A phone rings. Zafara/ leaps out of the computer/ and asks to be fed:/ “It’s been over two years./ I’m dying, I’m dying.”’

Within these pages is captured a kind of permeability in space and time that is both disorienting and fascinating. There is a sort of dream logic present — memories blend with reality. The voice shifts from Oet to their relatives – in one example, to the perspective of the father as a child. We are floating, in a sense, through the malleable past. 

In the poem I’m Lost Inside a Folding Cube, Whose Sides Withdraw and Reinstate, Float Dust in Light, (a wonderfully descriptive title) Oet writes, “I make myself go back in time to 1970 and tell little/ Papa, then little Mama:/ “You’re okay, you’re okay, it’s okay, you’re okay./ Don’t disappear like you’ve been disappeared on./ Please.”/ And they don’t, and everything is different.” 

How beautiful, how strange, is this doubling back of time — this ability to revisit scenes of one’s own past, or to confront others who have shaped it? 

Even past the last full poem, the book continues to surprise. There is a “notes” section, which provides space for additional observations, snippets, and anecdotes which enrich the experience of reading the poems, as well as an appendix, titled Ghost Cams. 

The narrator recounts their “obsession” with the ghost cams of the “early internet” — watching and refreshing “online video feeds constantly connected to the world’s most haunted places — library, mansions, hospitals, parking lots.” We’re also treated to descriptions of some of the cameras and their contents, including one which tricks the viewer into thinking they’ve finally caught sight of a spirit.

 There is a subtle grief in this — a feeling of disconnect. The narrator glimpses the beginnings of things, but doesn’t quite catch their endings. They are watching from a distance, both connected to the subjects of their viewing and removed from them. “I wonder if they know the ghost might be around them right at this moment, floating some erratic path through their bodies, connecting them like dots to a curving line. No, they can’t possibly know.” 

Oet also provides space for their family members to respond to the work. Mark, their sibling, says, “Inside Ball Lightning is the exploration of the questions we ask ourselves as we grow up and re-remember: What happened? Who am I?” 

In Inside Ball Lightning, Rainie Oet collects the fragments of many lives and weaves them through with thread. They press together dreams, memories, bonds — and from them pulls a unified energy. 

Inside Ball Lightning will be available from Southeast Missouri State University Press in March of 2020.

Review of Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger by Lilly Dancyger

“Throughout history, angry women have been called harpies, bitches, witches, and whores,” Lilly Dancyger writes in the introduction of her new anthology, Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger. Written by a diverse group of angry women, the twenty-two essays in Burn It Down confront the long history of women accused of being dramatic, hysterical, crazy, or hormonal for expressing anger and forced to swallow their rage in order to be viewed as composed and respectable ladies. Women are angry about so many things. They are angry about widespread violence and sexual assault, being stripped of rights and agency, being talked over, told to be quiet, or not taken seriously, and so much more. “Every woman I know is angry,” Dancyger writes. Burn it Down splits open women’s anger to reveal the ugly, uncomfortable inside and gives women a space to rage.

Many of the essays in this collection address the gendered nature of anger, who is allowed to express it, and how women bear the burden of keeping the peace. The writers talk about not having a space to release anger, and several speak of denying they ever felt angry so they wouldn’t have to confront it. Dani Boss’ essay, “On the Backburner,” describes how as a child she learned that the place for women’s anger was in the presence of other women. She watched her mother trade stories of frustration and rage with other moms and noted how often she heard, “phrases like, ‘I wish I could have said… ’” (157) On the other hand, Boss writes that her father openly raged, and she learned that as a girl it was her job, “to keep the peace through [her] work and [her] silence.” (158) Reema Zaman’s essay, “My Name and My Voice,” also speaks to the expectation for women to bare the weight of a man’s anger; “I’ve been taught that men of any kind, be they our abuser, father, or partner, are our mystery to solve, our duty to abide, our pain to nurse, our responsibility to care for, our child-master to defer to.” (140) Women are taught to be nurturers, first and foremost, even if it means they must sacrifice freedom, safety, or happiness.

Several essays discuss anger in relation to one’s identity. Shaheen Pasha describes her experience being a Muslim woman in America and her anger arisen from trying to navigate these two identities with pressure from both sides to choose between them. Samantha Riedel explores her relationship with anger before and after gender transition, writing how she exerted anger and aggression as a child in order to “perform masculinity in the only ways she knew how.” (72) Monet Patrice Thomas discusses the intersection of race and gender, the angry Black woman stereotype, and how suppressing her anger is an act of self-protection. When a man sexually assaulted her, she thought, “What expression could I conjure that would not encourage him further but would remove me from harm’s way?” When a police officer pulled her over and put her in the back of his police car, she “fixed [her] face, this time into a picture of innocence.” (32) In both instances she felt fury.

The collection also talks about how women’s anger can become entangled with other emotions, as a result of how women are socialized to behave. Marisa Korbel’s essay, “Why We Cry When We Are Angry,” talks about when anger produces physical tears, a frustratingly feminine response that becomes easy for others to dismiss; “When angry, men are much more likely to act out physically in aggressive ways. Women are more likely to cry.” (67) Erin Khar explores how women’s anger is placed back on the woman, taking on the form of guilt. “Anger in a women is akin to madness,” Khar writes. Khar lists things she has been called when she is angry, including “irrational,” “unstable,” and “in need of help,” (97) to reveal how these labels cause women to internalize and twist anger into feeling guilty for their behaviors and emotions.

The essays in this collection are bold, harrowing, honest, and cathartic. They depict a wide range of women’s anger, scorching hot and taking a stand. Other essays include Lisa Marie Basile’s piece on how often women’s physical pain is ignored, belittled, and left untreated. Meredith Talusan writes of doubting her own intelligence when a male classmate contradicts her in an area she has more expertise. Marisa Siegel writes of worrying her father’s oppressive anger would be genetically passed on to her son. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan examines how hunger leads to anger, and Dani Boss explores anger and menopause. Melissa Febos and Nina St. Pierre describe being angry, hormonal, teenage girls with a reason for their anger.

Perhaps the most satisfying moments in the collection are the multiple echoes that women’s anger so very often justified. “My anger signals the presence of an injustice,” Reema Zaman writes, “Rather than being shameful, my rage is noble.” (141) Erin Khar says, “I have a right to be angry.” (101) In a society that gaslights, silences, and dismisses women, this needs to be said. Each of the women in these personal stories has reason to be angry, and they are all justified.

Review of Mistress by Chet’la Sebree

Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress is a stunning debut that features a series of persona poems written in the voice of Sally Hemings. Sebree brings critical fabulation into the poetic discourse by constructing these poems using both historical record and imagined interiority. Throughout the collection, Hemings reckons with her past and sits in conversation with contemporary black women. Selected by Cathy Park Hong for the 2018 New Issues Poetry Prize, Mistress is a cross-generational conversation that uses the body to trace a linage of enslavement and degradation. Transposing history onto the contemporary, Sebree’s must-read collection scales time and geography, building an ancestral conversation between black women who are eternally in search of freedom and agency.

The front cover and title page, designed by Rebecca Schaefer, immediately orient the reader to the time warp that’s to follow. Reminiscent of 19th century frontispieces and portraiture all the while highlighting contemporary undertones—the front cover is an intimate close-up focusing in on an ear, pointed outward with intention. It serves as a calling to the reader to both listen to and reckon with the past about to be presented in the pages to come.

“Mistress” itself is a loaded term carrying many weighted definitions and perceptions throughout history. Sebree circles around the many fraught definitions in order to further complicate our understanding of the word. In poems like “Mistress of the House” and “Mistress of Hypermobility,” Sebree presents “mistress” as matriarch, as home builder, as dominatrix, as world traveler, and as educator. Sebree relentlessly threads this term throughout the book, ensuring that the reader doesn’t simply dismiss the label as immoral or, even worse, ignore the person behind the term. What do women gain with the label and their positionality? What do they lose? By returning over and over to these themes, Sebree complicates perceptions of black women’s desire, sexuality, and agency.

The book itself is split into three sections, each one furthering the notions previously presented. This allows Sebree to create a text that’s layered, weaving themes across generations. A great example being Sebree’s piece “Extraordinary Privilege, August 1792.” The words originally presented in the piece by Madison Hemings make their way back into the text a few pages later in the final lines of a piece entitled “Contemplating ‘Mistress,’ Sally in 2017.” This masterful weaving of theme and time is accentuated by Sebree’s range and precision. From an erasure piece that uses text from Stephen O’Connor’s novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemmings to a piece that repurposes words from Thomas Jefferson’s 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, Sebree propells the reader to sit with history in new ways. Stand out poems from the collection include “Je Suis Sally, August 2017” and “Ab Hinc (or, Sono Chet’la).

As a quasi-appendix, Sebree reveals a four-page timeline of the Hemings and Jefferson family-lines featuring fifteen people and spanning centuries, from 1735-2018. This paired with the notes section are a testament to the extensive research that went into the creation of this book. What’s even more impressive than just how meticulous Sebree’s research can be, is how well she manages the release of her knowledge onto the reader, making history feel both accessible and personable. Every poem leaves the door slightly ajar so that the reader can go learn more, while also hitting an emotional truth that rings timeless. This interiority is a fresh way of honoring history, and Sebree’s execution is a sign that she’s a master of both language and craft.

There’s no doubt that Mistress sits within a long linage of talented texts that work to insert interiority into a historical arena where black bodies are traditionally viewed as pawns instead of humans with dignity. From William Wells Browns’ fictional representation of one of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved daughters in Clotel to Toni Morrison’s more contemporary fictional retelling of family history in Beloved, Sebree’s Mistress shows the reader how to reckon with a past and move forward into a future.

An impressive debut, Mistress is a bold reclamation of history, one that blurs genre and time and challenges the antiquated perceptions of the black female body and desire. Released October 2019, copies are now available here.

Review of Tunsiya/Amrikiya by Leila Chatti
Blue door on a white wall

It is an impossible task—to be safe in America when your neighbors are watching. It’s impossible to explain how your body is too large to protect, how history is also a place in the body. When I moved to the South, I became a danger. I made a disturbing sight flickering through the grocery aisles. I perpetuated uncertainty, and the townspeople, I affected them. At dinner with my partner’s family, only I hear the man asking that I pay attention to his body. And because I am listening, I am unreasonable, living with parallel facts: that I am American, that my citizenship is secondary to my neighbors’ perception.

Leila Chatti attends to this duality in her first collection, Tunsiya/Amrikiya, a title that identifies the feminine within a nationality, and then the feminine within a second nationality. Leila Chatti is a dual citizen of Tunisia and the United States, and her poems explore her identity through a powerful, directing lyric “I.” Hers is a speaker who demands dialogue, which in its most basic form is the structure for acknowledgement.

It’s easy to imagine the speaker must feel defeated, pushed to the periphery. After all, “Jane and William had / so many apples, but never a friend named Khadija.” Who, then, will extend the generosity of apples to Khadija or to the speaker? But Chatti’s poetry constructs a center. Her poems are architectural in their narratives, with speakers who can be generous, who can receive bounty, even if the reader has not imagined these speakers lucky in their histories or their geography. If Chatti narrates a history she cannot control, she still hands her characters the knife. They are feeding themselves in poems like “Momon Eats an Apple in Summer”:

She keeps each sliver
to herself. Her fingers draw

the blade through the flesh
up to the bed of her thumb

and stop
and there is no blood—she knows

Chatti creates the abrupt line break, the isolating “and stop,” but Momon continues. The speaker narrates Momon past obstacles of prosody, and the sentence continues, which is to say, Momon will keep living. The speaker, in her record, sustains those she loves.

Those she cannot sustain with speech, she seeks to identify, to make their bodies sufficient. And perhaps this is the nature of a speaker in motion. If she cannot settle between two countries, the body, too, must be a place. For such a speaker, Chatti constructs the poem like a proof. In “Upon Realizing There Are Ghosts in the Water,” Chatti’s speaker confronts the defacing violence of political borders and risks her own body to give shape to an invisible death.

I should have known but the water
never told me. It sealed its blue lips
after swallowing you, it licked my ankles
like a dog. I won’t lie
and say the ocean begged for forgiveness;
it gleams unchanged in the sun.
Some things are so big they take and take
and remain exactly the same size.

The speaker is in conversation with the dead, an act that extends her humanity to her listener. “I waded in / to your grave as if trying it on,” and “when the waves came, / they gave me back.” There is the risk that the speaker could well be another body we “should have known,” after it’s lost in the Mediterranean between so many borders. Instead, she becomes a vessel for recognizing the grief that hasn’t been expressed and the lost figure who hasn’t been identified. If the ghost can be seen, it can be seen as part of her body, which “wore its salt like gemstones.” The poem extends the body, provides a whole ocean asked to house it, and a speaker also vast enough to wear the ocean, to carry the body of another, another’s endless possibilities.

It’s this certainty that surprises in Chatti’s poetry. Essential to her identity-proof is that someone will listen. Her speakers structure their bodies and their loved ones in cumulative optimism. Chatti’s poems are not naive. By extending the body (the refugee coffined by the Mediterranean Sea, the mother with “four hearts / outside her body”), Chatti describes vulnerability but also pinpoints violence; she creates opposing scales where the brown body is central, not the harm done to it.

When reading “Motherland,” its opening question, “What kind of world will we leave / for our mothers?” I return again and again to how Chatti’s “Okay When Are We Going” separates a mother and daughter remembering the aftermath of 9/11 while contemplating the consequences of a Trump presidency:

!200! !100!that summer after the towers sank
like a heart, she pinned the tiny striated flag to my breast
before my flight back there, the other land, as though it might protect me
from this one. My mother, looking the same
as she does now, white-lipped and terrified, in a Midwestern restaurant

Here is a mother struggling to disguise her child as herself. She disguises her child from her country by dressing her in the symbolism of her country. She is frightened, and her child is frightened: “I was a child. I cried. The flag shuddered on my chest.” Yet at the heart of this is a mother who will have her country recognize itself in her child. She’s willing to enact a string of signifiers so that every moment her child shakes, her country will have “shuddered.”

If we go back to the question, “What kind of world will we leave / for our mothers?” with the knowledge that the child is more vulnerable than the parent, that “the country she gave / me could kill me,” or that the mother risks her “four hearts / outside her body, buried / in brown and fragile skin,” then we are praying for the wellbeing of our country. We hope for the sake of our country that the vulnerable will survive—because in Chatti’s beautiful America, the loss of any brown child is unbearable.

Review of Immortal Village by Kathryn Rhett
House in a tree near a river

Any reader of poetry is familiar with the way theme constellates across a book, building a product that is much more than the sum of its parts. And yet each time I read Kathryn Rhett’s Immortal Village, I remain amazed: this collection manages something I haven’t witnessed before. Although initially Rhett’s use of theme seems familiar, she gradually intensifies the repetition of phrases and ideas until they become the driving force of the lyric’s “narrative.” Repetition acts as a wormhole in space-time, allowing the reader to exist in several moments, and poems, at once.

If that sounds complex, Rhett’s technical control of language makes it simple. Recurring phrases such as “white nightgown,” “with a war on,” and “lay down some” send the reader forward and back across the collection, like a wind stirring chimes at every house on the street.  Consider the use of repetition in “Slip”: “But it’s always 1776. / It’s always 1972. / We’re always wearing white nightgowns. / He’s always saying, let me / tell you a story / In a confiding tone / And the story will always destroy us.”

Amidst the revolving themes of art, family, and selfhood, the collection relies on the narrator’s voice as a constant. This allows the poems to take risks they would not otherwise be able to. The poems can move seamlessly from moments in the narrator’s childhood to moments spent with the narrator’s own children. The book inhabits many spaces, including but not limited to a honeymoon apartment in Mexico, a cornfield outside a juvenile boys’ home, the Uffizi Gallery, and the glass airspace above San Francisco. Literary allusions add another element of depth, spanning from Elizabeth Bishop to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Gothe. Rhett understands how to arrange image against image, text against text, in a way that brings out the best qualities of each.

Rhett comes to poetry from prose, having previously published two books of nonfiction; as such, the ease with which she builds character in these poems comes as no surprise. What truly astounds, however, is the superb musicality with which she manages the task. These poems are driven by sound, and Rhett is masterful at pacing. Her narrator is recognizable by voice and breath alone, as in “In Bed”: “If only you would with your hand / cover my mouth, lay down some violence / like what we watch with satisfaction on TV— / lay down some violence against me / while we wait for / death what what they say we’ll get.”

Rhett is able to alter tone without rushing the reader, even—and especially—at moments when the poems intensify. Each line is given appropriate time to reverberate. The poems are resolute, uninterested in softening the world. But despite that darkness, there is delight in each turn of language, each time a sentence manages more than it rightly should. For example, from “Book of Hours”: “The child growing larger by the hour, as if birth were endless. / She traps her small flying hand with her mouth.” In this manner, Rhett’s poems alchemize joy where the reader least expects it. The collection is as energizing as it is precise, and the ideas continue to echo in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

Although this is Rhett’s first full-length collection of poetry, its finely-tuned craft speaks to her years of experience. She is able to transform the ordinary over and over, making a mythology which becomes larger than even the immortal village or the richly painted angels. At a time when literary forms continue to be more hybrid, this collection is a model of how a book within a single genre can innovate through cross-genre technique. Rhett’s whirled collage, her balance of characterization and lyricism, and her musicality make this book a true wonder. The magic of Immortal Village is subtle, but I have the feeling this book is a preview of literary conventions to come—and what a future that promises to be.

Review of Sky Country by Christine Kitano

“Sky country,” as explained by the title poem of Christine Kitano’s second poetry collection, is the Korean word for heaven. It is a word used to describe the United States, and a word that underlies this book’s framing conceit of the immigrant experience. Kitano, the daughter of a Japanese American father and a Korean immigrant mother, delves intimately into her family’s history to explore and challenge this notion of paradise across the five sections of this collection.

Opening with a series of linked prose poems, the first section of Sky Country paints in lucid detail the poet’s relationship with her Korean grandmother, as mediated through language and narrative. When her grandmother tells stories of her past, Kitano writes, “My Korean is weak. I understand only pieces of what she says.” The American world which the poet inhabits also resists neat translation across a generational and cultural divide, and Kitano expresses this frustration: “I want to tell her it’s not that kind of war, but I don’t have the words.” However, in the same breath, these poems forge a connection between the two women through images, if not through language. Kitano describes her grandmother reenacting biblical stories, “rais[ing] her arms, as if in victory, to summon the Pillar of Fire and split the Red Sea”—an image that echoes the “boat, a river, and a fire” that recur in the older woman’s storytelling.

Section II of the collection is situated firmly in place: Utah’s Topaz Concentration Camp, circa the 1940s. Here, Kitano uses persona poems to imaginatively explore the internment experience of the Japanese during World War II. The collection’s third section continues to adopt the unique voices of different narrators—ranging from a prostitute, to an insomniac, to a dental assistant—and in the fourth section, the poems delve into the poet’s relationship with her parents. A series of prose poems, grouped under the title “A Story with No Moral,” links Los Angeles in 1990 with South Korea in 1958—connecting Kitano’s own childhood discomfort about her physical appearance with a story of one of her mother’s mixed-race classmates.

The fifth and final section in Sky Country circles back to the poet’s grandmother, whose experiences living in both Korea and the United States ground the collection’s narrative (and thematic) preoccupation with immigration and belonging. In the concluding poem, Kitano muses gently as a way of exit, “It is here, the bus that will ferry / you home. Go ahead, / grandmother, go on.” The collection ends planted firmly in concrete visual details, echoing and responding to the poems in section I that first introduced images as a potent form of communication within the larger, often failed, framework of language.

An essential component of the immigrant experience is the slow erosion of one’s cultural and linguistic identity, and Sky Country subtly interrogates this sense of erasure. Writing about her grandmother in section I, the speaker observes that she “knows how history can wipe away a person’s language,” and this observation is juxtaposed both directly and indirectly with the speaker’s own loss of the Korean language. In “Fireflies,” a mother teaches her daughter the Japanese word for “firefly” but wakes up the next morning to “find the characters gone, / the name on the earth already erased by the wind.” Kitano’s examination of absence and loss converges with the sense that this collection in no way tells a complete story. In writing about her father, the poet admits, “This is not the whole story, / and yet, it is true. / It is a story without an ending. / And when I open my mouth / to speak, it continues.” Both the father’s narrative and a more general immigrant’s narrative take shape through Kitano’s poems, yet also spill beyond them, too much for one narrator, one author, or one book.

On a more intimate level, Sky Country is driven by a current of longing felt tangibly in every section. Kitano conveys desire in flashes of imagery, like “a light that fails and fails to reach us” in “I Will Explain Hope,” or the men in “Lucky Come Hawai’i” who “crave your breath, your cool hands / smooth as abalone shell, your fine feet . . .” Kitano also speaks of a powerful ache, writing about dreaming of her dead father and desiring to please her mother. She encapsulates what is perhaps the heart of the collection in “Autobiography of the Poet at Sixteen,” when she states, simply and beautifully: “we are built for life, / for love, which means / we are built for pain.” Life, love, and pain converse with and long for each other across the poems of this collection. Under the unifying notion of “sky country,” Kitano invites readers to ache in the same way she aches as a woman and a daughter, in the same way Koreans ached dreaming of America as heaven, in the same way immigrants have ached trying to belong in this country. Sky Country offers pain and delight, heartbreak and love, through poems which—while rendered in exquisite language and imagery—still gesture to what is incomplete, what is unwritten, and what is lost.

Review of Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s new book, Difficult Women, is a deeply moving collection of short stories that are by turns tender, heartbreaking, and chilling. Gay’s characters, “difficult” thought they may be, are rendered with a profound sensitivity that affirms their humanity, alongside their wounds and flaws. Gay herself claimed an affinity for so-called “unlikeable characters” in a 2014 piece for Buzzfeed, describing them as “those who behave in socially unacceptable ways and say whatever is on their mind and do what they want…and put themselves first without apologizing for it.”[1]

Difficult Women is replete with such complicated characters: women and men who make selfish and self-destructive decisions, often in response to past trauma. These stories explore the ongoing effects of that trauma in language both lyrical and intimate. In “North Country,” an African-American woman who recently lost a baby during childbirth takes a job as a professor in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she finds love with a patient and plainspoken Yooper. The story details the many microaggressions she experiences in her mostly-white small town and conveys the way these actions weigh on her as she works through her grief. In “Break All The Way Down,” a woman whose child is killed by a motorist punishes herself by leaving her husband for an abusive lover. When the lover’s ex-girlfriend abandons her own baby in the woman’s arms, the woman is finally able to return to the house she shared with her husband to begin to come to terms with their loss.

Scenes of domestic abuse and sexual violence abound in these stories, but these moments are never sensationalized. In the case of “Break All The Way Down,” Gay depicts the desire for violence as yet another intrusion of past trauma on a character’s present life. When the protagonist finally returns to her husband, she begs him to “hold [her] to the ground;” though he readily accepts this request to temporarily take charge of her life, he patiently refuses to give the physical punishment she demands of him. Many of Gay’s characters who “survive” trauma never quite finish “surviving” it, and her plots often hinge on the ways characters navigate a hostile and dangerous world while nursing wounds that never fully heal.

While several of Gay’s protagonists invite punishment in heartbreaking ways, occasionally characters’ masochism brings them closer together. In the brash and energetic “Baby Arm,” Gay explores the strange and touching intimacy between two young women who co-host an all-female fight club, an environment where a cathartic sort of misogynistic self-abasement sits uneasily beside affirmations of female companionship.  In the middle of a melee, the narrator catches her friend’s eye across the room and sees her “[mouth] ‘I love you,’ and I smile even though it hurts and another set of knuckles connects with my face, running the moment—bitches ruin everything.”

Throughout this collection, Gay takes risks not only with content, but also with style and form. The title story is written as series of vignettes that present a satirical taxonomy of diverse types of “difficult women,” including “Loose Women,” “Frigid Women,” “Crazy Women,” “Mothers,” and “Dead Girls.” Though somewhat fragmentary, the story is nevertheless clever and engaging. “La Negra Blanca” productively inhabits an uncomfortable space between realism, satire, and the grotesque. In this story, a mixed-race woman who is putting herself through college by working as an exotic dancer is stalked by a wealthy white racist obsessed by hip-hop culture and the bodies of black women. This villain is no less terrifying for being cartoonish, and the story is by turns tender and deeply disturbing.

Several stories in the collection are explicitly surreal or speculative. “Water, All Its Weight” and “Requiem for a Glass Heart” allegorize depression and vulnerability via magical realist conceits. In the first, water seeps from the walls and ceilings around a recent divorcee, warping and staining any room she occupies; in the second, a “stone thrower” married to a glass woman handles her with care, but is reckless and carefree with his flesh-and-blood mistress. Though thought-provoking and beautifully-written, these speculative stories are ultimately  weaker than others in the collection. The strength of the stories in Difficult Women derives from Gay’s remarkable ability to tease out and explore the humanity of her unusual and complicated characters, and this deep empathy is inhibited in tales in which emotions are transformed and externalized through allegory.

Published in January, this collection takes on new resonance in the aftermath of an election in which a man who once bragged about sexual assault won the presidency over a female candidate he notoriously derided as a “nasty woman”—a bit of nomenclature that seems right at home in Gay’s titular taxonomy. The dystopian premise of Gay’s “Noble Things” is especially striking in this light. In a version of America divided against itself, in which southern states have seceded after a divisive election and a border fence has been built along the former Mason-Dixon line, Parker, the son of a Southern general, longs for unity. When his young son inspects a map of the Balkanized former United States and asks “Why aren’t these states together?”, Parker responds, “They used to be,” then continues: “they ought to be.” He explains that “once, there was an election and smallminded people couldn’t handle the man who won.”

The premise evokes the racist divisions of the Obama years, in which the election and re-election of our first black president led to petitions for secession across the nation, as well a “birther” challenge to the president’s citizenship championed by the very man who would eventually succeed him. But the longing for unity expressed in “Noble Things” takes on new implications in a post-45 America that has also heard half-serious calls for “Calexit” alongside jokes from anxious progressives about moving to Canada. Abandoning the American project may have consequences (both for those who leave, as in Gay’s story, and for those who are left behind), but the imperative to stick it out takes its own toll.  In “Noble Things,” the North remains prosperous after Southern secession, while Parker’s South suffers under the austerity brought about by its “smallminded” decision. In the closing paragraphs, Parker and his wife nostalgically recall the days when there was only “one nation, indivisible until it wasn’t” and marvel at “how quickly it all came apart.” Maintaining unity means striving to heal divisions, but may also mean persisting—as the characters of Difficult Women do—in a world that feels on the verge of breaking apart.

 

[1] Gay, Roxane. “Not Here to Make Friends: On the Importance of Unlikeable Female Protagonists.” Buzzfeed, 3 January 2014, https://www.buzzfeed.com/roxanegay/not-here-to-make-friends-unlikable?utm_term=.vhW0reyjd#.svKAD7VJm. Accessed 24 September 2017.

Review of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber

A skinny volume with a bright red cover, Sonya Huber’s new essay collection is vibrant and loud from its first pages. The collection details the speaker’s diagnosis of and life with rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain, and addresses both the physical realities and the metaphysical concept of pain. In the opening essay, “What Pain Wants,” the speaker says, “pain resents being personified or anthropomorphized.” Of course, this statement is itself a clever and strange contradiction, hinting that the speaker is comfortable living in complex, imagined spaces. The relationship between this speaker and her pain is complicated. In the same essay the speaker converses with pain: “Pain prefers any texture in which tiny seeds are embedded. Pain shakes its head—no, it says, that is you that likes that texture—and will have nothing to do with spheres.” The imagery here is dense and evocative (those spheres, yes, but also glowing skeletons, egg yolks, cough drop wrappers, lumpy casseroles, nautilus shells), drawing attention to sensation and the response of pain at each turn.

In the essay, “From Inside the Egg,” there are moments in which the effects pain has on the process of writing are visceral, visible. “There’s a theory about the ‘gates’ of pain in the brain that shuttle signals, / but I can’t look it up right now. / I can only do certain kinds of thinking in pain. I can think through a keyhole.” Here, the simple act of not returning to ‘look it up,’ to add in the missing research is political, is the point. The speaker challenges the supposed laziness of sick and disabled people, and allows the absence of information to speak louder than any citation. In a collection incorporating so much research, this moment where the source is purposefully omitted stands out. “From Inside the Egg” is also one of the collection’s more lyrical essays. There are line breaks and sections that are right-aligned. The use of the field of the page almost ‘crips’ it, forcing the reader to contend with the language Huber has broken.

One of the longer and more explanatory essays, “The Alphabet of Pain,” covers an exceptional amount of terrain. The essay uses the foundation of the speaker’s body to engage diverse subjects, including queerness (“Pain sex is queer sex”), labor (“As a woman worker, I have had to speak up to resist the expectation that I will be endlessly available”), and the flaws of the United States medical system (“…only four medical schools in the country have a required course on pain management”). Pain is made both specific and universal, and is called out as political, as when Huber writes, “if pain were not political, we wouldn’t have torture and jails, both of which manipulate and use the body’s instinctive aversion to pain to instill fear and compliance.” This essay comes early in the collection, and lays an explicit foundation for the vocabulary (or alphabet) of pain that later, more lyrical essays (including “From Inside the Egg”) build on.

The collection as a whole may center around pain, but an almost equally present thread is that of the digital space. In “The Status of Pain,” Huber writes of a friend who mentioned the prominence of pain on Huber’s Facebook page. Researching her own life and digital history, Huber finds that this prominence simply doesn’t exist; she’s only posted explicitly about pain three times in the year before the conversation. On the decision to be ‘out’ with her illness and pain, Huber then writes, “will people automatically associate our whole beings with those moments when we are at our weakest?” The title essay, “Pain Woman Takes Your Keys,” speaks to the narrowing effect of pain on Huber’s writing process, almost confessing that “some days in the last year, all I could make was a blog post.” But then, a shift: the blog post is reframed as powerful and significant, a piece that goes viral. The essay ends with the speaker speaking in the new voice of ‘Pain Woman,’ saying “You have more options than the writerly self you think you should be writing through.”

In “Peering into the Dark of the Self, with Selfie,” Huber examines her own “pain selfies…pale olive ovals,” and the motivations behind this documentation. Much has been written about selfies. (Are they narcissistic? Do only millennials take them? And really, are they causing the downfall of modern society?) Huber engages with this conversation, through the lens of disability. “I am seeking the best light and the best side of the woman who does not have to pretend she is not in pain,” she writes. For her, these selfies and their presence on her phone are meaningful, as is the phone itself, which we’re told in “The Alphabet of Pain” serves as a conduit between the speaker and a close friend with the same illness.

“Cupcakes,” a beautiful essay about motherhood and the cupcakes the speaker doesn’t bake for her son, includes Huber again mentioning digital spaces, this time writing “I have been trying to support my new reality by following more disability activists on Twitter.” In Pain Woman, the digital space is where the speaker connects with other disabled people in ways she can’t in her ‘real’ life. It’s a space for research, it’s a space for creativity, and it’s a space for disclosure, which leads to critique from the nondisabled people around her. Just as Huber makes pain explicitly political, so does she unpack the everyday conversations with nondisabled colleagues and friends. When a friend says Huber ‘looks good,’ or a colleague mentions disapprovingly that she’s been ‘very open’ about her disability on social media, these moments are not neutral. They are moments of small but noted violence. They are microaggressions.

In Huber’s collection, pain is ceaseless. It is present in every essay. Pain’s constancy is the point. Pain is relentless, but we’re also told (in the short essay “Prayer to Pain”) that it “is not other than you.” Pain and illness are reframed as strength, as the foundations of a prosperous and privileged community excluding the nondisabled. “We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible,” Huber writes in “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick.” This collection does important work to lead a nondisabled audience to the water of revelation, illuminating the barriers of systemic ableism and a health care system designed to lessen time and money spent on patients. Equally, this collection does not pander to ableism. It is not always for its nondisabled readers.

Pain Woman contains moments of fantastically dark humor (“I have tried and I enjoy yoga. But if you tell me to try yoga, then I will have to fight you,” in “The Alphabet of Pain”), moments of tightly-controlled rage (“Thank you for reminding me that the world of persona and star-creation is one that excludes bodies with illnesses,” from “Dear Noted Feminist Scholar”), and moments of straightforward declaration (“I refuse to be at war with myself,” in “From Inside the Egg”). In the age of Trump, an age when the Affordable Care Act (which the speaker mentions as the reason she can access healthcare) is threatened, this book is even more important, luminous, and necessary than it was when it was published a few months ago.

Review of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya

In an unbroken monologue sustained for over 80 pages, Edgardo Vega, the narrator of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion skewers every aspect of Salvadoran culture he can summon—from pupusas and football to the archetypal Salvadoran character. Moya channels Austrian writer and luminous curmudgeon Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), whose own style eschewed both paragraph breaks and generosity of judgment, and whose work is more often compared to the symphonies of his contemporaries than their novels. Bernhard’s Austria is a failed state, both culturally and politically, a country whose citizens cannot collectively produce a soul worth admiring. Moya’s El Salvador is no different.

Bernhard’s narrators often live abroad, are forced to return to Austria and confront their hatred of their motherland. Moya’s narrator, too, lives abroad, in Montreal. “I left,” he says, “because I never accepted the macabre joke of being destined to be born in this place.” The joke, for the reader, lies in the breathlessness of his assault on El Salvador. Indeed, it is impossible not to laugh, if only from sheer exhaustion. His indictments compound and spin out into manifestations of their own bombast. Vega tells his interlocutor that El Salvador “is a hallucination…it only exists because of it crimes.” Crimes here are shorthand for the atrocities associated with the twelve-year Salvadoran civil war. Because of these crimes, and because of the country, this slim book also exists.

Edgardo Vega lives the life of a grateful expatriate. An art history professor at McGill University, his Canadian passport immunizes him from the indignities visited on émigré Salvadorans. “Even so,” Vega says, “I came because my mother died, Moya, the death of my mother is the only reason I felt obliged to return to this filthy pit.”

Where the reader might expect an epigraph, Moya provides a disclaimer: “Warning: Edgardo Vega, the central character of this report, exists. He lives in Montreal under another name that’s not Thomas Bernhard. He surely relayed his opinions more emphatically and with more carnage than this text contains. I’ve softened perspectives that may have offended certain readers.” First published in 1997 as El asco, readers were indeed offended by its attack on Salvadoran culture and politics. Moya received death threats after the book’s release and friends urged him to remain abroad. In the afterword, he explains that his little book was conceived only as an exercise in style, a game of mimicry. He adds, “El Salvador isn’t Austria. It is a country where, in 1975, its own leftist comrades assassinated the country’s most important poet, Roque Dalton, after accusing him of being a CIA agent. I thought it would be better to go into exile than play the martyr.”

For those, Salvadoran or not, inclined to take offense, there is no dearth of material in Revulsion to do the job. Edgardo Vega’s irascibility is tireless—given a willing listener, he will bemoan “the idiocy of being Salvadoran” eternally. In the Afterword, Moya seems less concerned than amused over his countrymen’s offense. To contextualize Vega’s revulsion further, or attempt to mitigate its effects, would be like explaining a punchline, something from which Moya gracefully refrains.

The author is himself a character, present only as Vega’s silent companion. Both reporter and consummate listener, Moya sits with Vega between the hours of five and seven, in the only bar in San Salvador that Vega can tolerate—the bartender pours heavy drinks and allows Vega to choose the music. “This evening,” Vega tells Moya, “I want to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B-flat Minor, which is why I brought my own CD with this stupendous concerto for piano and orchestra, which is why I came prepared with my favorite Tchaikovsky.” This moment depicts Vega at his least vociferous, subdued before plunging into another diatribe.

Vega is foremost paranoid. Suspicious and terrified of his countrymen, he sees everywhere “guys who were no doubt torturers and participated in massacres during the civil war.” Everyone is guilty but those who fled; namely, Vega. When Vega is generous, he’ll add Moya to his list of nonparticipants. Moya is too busy, he says, writing “famished little stories about sex and violence” to actually engage in it.

Vega’s diatribe belies his fear that he, too, despite his Canadian passport, despite his hatred of violence, is guilty of the same crimes. In order to cancel his own guilt, everyone else must be made culpable. Every bus driver, football player, and bartender is, to Vega, complicit in the most horrible war crimes. He doesn’t stop, though, with accusing citizens of El Salvador. It is their culture, too, their dietary habits, their prejudices, and their leisure activities that are responsible for the war’s atrocities. This unsparingness bleeds into hyperbole and comedy. Moya’s Vega is certainly funny, though because of the form of Revulsion, his humor is best appraised in its accumulation. It’s impossible not to laugh when everything is guilty.

The appearance of Vega’s brother, Ivo, signals the arrival of a plot to support further diatribe. Vega says of his brother, “[W]e don’t hate each other, we’re simply two planets on distinct orbits, the only thing that brought us together is the task of having inherited my mother’s house in Miramonte.” Ivo owns a chain of locksmith shops across San Salvador. An arriviste with aspirations beyond his social station, Ivo’s tastes are decidedly lowbrow. He loves football and binge drinking. He “has three televisions in his house,” says Vega, “you wouldn’t believe it, three televisions they turn on at the same time to different channels, a true hell this place is.” Here, there is a barely perceptible increase in generosity never present in Bernhard’s work, as if Vega, or Moya, is uncomfortable directing his rage at individuals.

Diatribes erect a formidable edifice in Moya’s book, but their indictments are allowed to stand unsupported. San Salvador is a stupid city. Why? Because its people are stupid. Why? Vega answers that question in a number of ways, and few of his answers are sufficient. San Salvador, he writes, is “a culture with the memory of a gadfly, crashing every two seconds against the same window glass because after two seconds it’s already forgotten that the glass existed.” Because the form of the monologue lends itself more easily to exposition than scene, Vega conveys his observations in lists, similes, and hyperbole. Anecdotes would better serve a story, but Revulsion is not a conventional story.

In the afterword, Moya notes that “the wife of a writer friend threw her copy [of Revulsion] into the street, out of her bathroom window, indignant, thanks to Edgardo Vegas’s barbaric talk about pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador.” (Vega claims that the popularity of pupusas can only be explained by “hunger and ignorance.”) Despite death threats and book burnings, Revulsion continues each year to expand its Spanish publication. Moya writes that strangers beg him to write a Revulsion for Mexico, for Guatemala, for Costa Rica, a book “that would critically demolish their country’s cultures,” that would plainly articulate their revulsions for them.

In 2016, New Directions published the book in English, as translated by Lee Klein. Nearly ten years after its initial publication, Revulsion is as timely as ever, and not only for El Salvador, Guatemala, or Costa Rica. As political backlash threatens to undo years of progressive advancement in the United States with a public resurgence of white supremacy and xenophobia, Vega’s type of paranoia is all too relevant.

Review of Phrasis by Wendy Xu

 

The poems in Wendy Xu’s new collection, Phrasis, are kaleidoscopic, forged of fragments.  As the title describes, these are poems of phrasis, a portmanteau of phrases and phasis—or phase. Linguistic and episodic moments of the speaker’s life are the primary building blocks in this collection, and from Xu’s combinations, the reader observes a world almost as if looking through a shattered, but still whole, window.  As the speaker of the titular poem states of “preemptive necessity,” these poems are made of “phrase[s] I’d like to unframe.” To do so, Xu contorts common phrases, moving them away from their conventions: “Happy birth upon a time, Nation!” she writes in “Task Force,” or, “in this trying, these times,” she reorders in “Phrasis.” These, however, are not syntactic games. The twisting in Phrasis is more violent, perhaps akin to “the war” of Xu’s opening poem “Recovery,” that is “a syntatactical construction pointing back to itself.”

And it is true, one feels a linguistic war in these poems. Xu routinely employs atypical sentence structures; elides subjects, verbs, objects; and uses comparative forms of adjectives when the comparison seems to be absent (for example: “I appear myself in public brimming nearer the bronze fountain” from “Music Box”).  However, in “Poem for our Fathers,” Xu concludes, “surely a face formed there / purely by will” and suddenly, it seems that instead of by violence, these poems are constructed by an act of will. Though an act of will requires determination and force, and can appear violent for those reasons, the goal of these poems is not to do damage, but to construct—as does “a face formed there”—a self.  Through language, as Xu states in “The Window Rehearses,” she is “driving both / hands into the space I / am allowed.”

In a 21st-century United States marred by war, oppression, commerce, inequality, capitalism, greed, love, lust, consumption, and technology “the space I am allowed” can be very small. To unframe the phrases and phases that appear to define one’s self, to reapportion them towards one’s own ends, is then an act of reclamation. Xu writes in “Theme Song”

 

mucking poorly

the clean slate, it was only how we

 

say tragic.

 

Tragedy is only tragedy because we say it is tragedy. Xu resists group-defined truths, and even resists the group of “we,” writing in “Phrasis,” “I / am telling you I speak from the representative we but / do not fill me in.” The individuality of the speaker continuously revolts against being defined by mere kinship to others. For this reason, relationships are hardly places of stability, and overflowing New York City provides an oppressive background, where only occasionally does the speaker experience such luxuries as quietly watching a boat come into harbor. One of the greatest tragedies in Phrasis is, on the train in “Five Year Plan,” to “worry a stranger’s / jutted hip and miss / that country view.” In the same poem, Xu also writes, “Out all day I wish more bars / and restaurants unto nobody.” Urbanity, and its twin, technology, strangle the mind. In “Some People,” Xu writes “Something I thought / today was system error” and in “Phrasis”—of herself? of a beloved?—“After a particularly long period of hermitage / you reek again of industry.”

In “Diagonal Sun,” the speaker simply exclaims, “I wanted so bad all that rustic shit.” But when, in “The Forecast,” “leafy nouns” appear, something like solace might emerge from language. The poems of Phrasis are filled with references to the mechanics of poetry: lines, white space, verbs, nouns. They are works of determination to write the self into a fragmented world. Not to defragment it, but rather, as Xu writes in “Phrasis:” to “refer… to the self in thirds, he there of the bent / frame, she shaded in multiplicities of orange, red,” because in divvied-up people, sewn together by color and frames, is reality.

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.