Friday, December 31, 2010

Editorial: More Light?

Because it's the holidays—at least for another day or so—and because the holidays mean that submissions tend to slow down toward the end of the year, I thought I would write an editorial-type piece in this blog on a holiday theme.  I've been meaning to write an editorial-type piece on something or other, and this seemed as good an excuse as any.  I knew it wasn't going to be something warm and fuzzy, although the impulse sprang from a holiday sort of place—the desire to offer something, however modest in value it may turn out to be, for the sake of offering it.

That seems to be one of the most consistent impulses surrounding the Winter Solstice holiday that has evolved into our Western Christmas and concurrent religious observances, often lumped together as "the holidays" as if they all occur at precisely the same time, even on years like this one when Hanukkah concluded on December 9th. 

Gift-giving is obviously paramount to the holidays these days, since without retailers to remind us of our obligations to our loved ones and mere acquaintances as early as late September, what would a modern holiday season be?  But an even more basic and ancient impulse was simply to ward off the darkness a little bit by lighting a candle.

It's hard to imagine a time when things like candles on a tree—or the safer alternative of flashing LED lights—were not merely symbolic holiday tropes, but there was such a time, and I think the deal of how it all started was as basic as this.  Year after year, after the harvest and first frosts had passed, people noticed that the days were getting so short that it seemed, at the rate they were going, they would eventually disappear (thus the need to appease the sun gods) and the growing cold from the retreating sun only exacerbated the feeling of darkness.  People huddled inside around their fires much of the day, and probably grew more guarded and fearful of the world outside—and they had reason to be.  Their children may not survive the winter.[1]

It was a brazen, foolhardy and generous impulse to run out into the cold, dark village lane or town square with a torch and an amphora of wine or horn of mead to share with one's neighbors.  But after enough of the stuff had been imbibed, and with everyone glutted on the slaughtered livestock who wouldn't be surviving the winter, anyway, a merry mood was inevitable.[1]  It all must have happened quite naturally.

And that's the problem with the modern Christmas, lamented by Bethlehem-minded observers like "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz in 1965 as well as more secular-minded critics holding an equally dim view of commercialism today:  Nothing about it seems quite real.

But the thing is, it isn't that the rest of our modern lives feels solid and substantial, and only our Christmas is phony.  It's that our comfortable, everyday world is made of aluminum, polystyrene, and silicon (or silicone), and our Christmas is no exception.  Our Christmas is part and parcel of our time, just like it was for the Victorians (and it's hard to say now exactly how the Victorian Christmas was before its repackaging by nostalgia) and yet our Christmas still seems somehow wrong to us—because it doesn't match up to Dickens or even to that 1965 "Peanuts" cartoon.  Everyone (or so it seems) wants to be old-fashioned at Christmas, but very few know how, and the uninitiated are afraid those few will take their secret recipes to the grave.

Who would be familiar with the work of Currier and Ives these days if they weren't enshrined in a familiar carol?  What the heck is a wassail, anyway?  If it's spiked, as I presume it is, I'm game, but I hope someone else knows the recipe.  (Yes, it is, and here is the recipe.[2])  But who has the time to bake, construct and decorate a gingerbread house?  A few very dedicated purists here and there, and some TV pastry chefs. 

To most of us, it's just another trope, like the holly and the ivy (medieval symbols for male and female, "when they are both full grown"--and you can guess which medieval gender is the bright, upstanding holly and which the clinging ivy) or Santa Claus (an incarnation of the Norse god Odin later melded with a 4th Century Greek saint [4]) and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, who at least makes the misfit in all of us feel more at home at a time when it seems everyone else knows where they belong in the scheme of this holiday thing.

The two-to-three-month buildup to Christmas has a way of making the most romantic among us feel like Grinches.  On December 23rd, I found myself humming "Eleanor Rigby" instead of "Deck the Halls."  I knew so many people newly or long-single, geographically distant or estranged from their families for whom I could only imagine this season to be a long, grim slog. 

Should we tag as foul-spirited Grinches anyone who feels a bit cranky at all the product-peddling clichés whirling around them?  I don't think so.  Even with family to go home to and with a loving partner at my side, the pressure of the season had been grating on my nerves, aided by a perennial case of seasonal affective disorder.  This year, I hoped for a light therapy box under my tree.

For the reluctant among us, instead of just "Consume, consume," the advertisers have to sell the idea of Christmas first, and often do so by implying that all would-be consumers have a dormant sense of Christmas buried deep inside them that is just waiting to be sparked.  Maybe one of their more scientifically-minded consultants convinced them there is some kind of Christmas gene, and one of the ways it's expressed is by making the phenotype in question rush down to the Apple store or Jared, The Galleria of Jewelry. 

If Charles Schulz were still around and someone managed to convince him to make a second sequel to his famous "Peanuts" Christmas cartoon, what might he have to say about the way commercialism has truly blossomed since 1965, and even 1992, when the first sequel was aired—about how it's exploded into the full-grown monstrosity that it is today? 

What might he say about all the ways we've found to imitate items once found in nature or even the factory with digital, virtual representations of them?  (At least a pink aluminum Christmas tree exists in three dimensions.)

If he were a paleo-pagan instead of a Protestant, (although it's interesting to note that later in life he referred to himself as a secular humanist [5]) what might he, speaking for our ancestors, say about what has happened to the simple impulse to light a candle rather than cursing the darkness, and to share a little of what makes a person merry with one's neighbors and friends?

Oh, sure, it didn't take long even for the ancients to pin down this impulse into stagnant ritual.  That's one of the things groups of humans do best—suck the feeling out of something and replace it with a "how-to" manual, and then put the manual up for sale, along with some devotional trinkets.  That's no modern phenomenon. 

What we've managed to innovate in the last century or so is a world where, due to our cleverness, our success as a species, we don't need candles to light our dark nights anymore, and so we've logically come to believe that all we need is the idea of a candle, the trope of a candle cut into a rough shape for a cookie or synthetic fabric mold. 

I have to emphasize that I count myself as someone who is in favor of the future—meaning that I detest the idea of cursing progress, proclaiming all that's modern to be corrupt and decadent, because much of what we have built for ourselves over the millennia has proven light years better than what we started out with, and not only with regard to technology.  Much of our way of thinking about our fellow human beings is more inclusive and tolerant and less self-serving and violent.  Although we obviously have a long way to go along that path, on the whole we are kinder and gentler. 

But I do think we might do well, in the midst of hunkering down and wishing coziness and comfort for me and mine, to remember the despair, and disparity, that persists in the world outside our weatherproof doors—in the parts of the world map lit up by the electric grid and the parts that as of yet are not—and light a candle with that darkness in mind.  


Apparently Goethe's apocryphal last words "More light!" turn out to be a posterity-minded paraphrase of his more banal instruction to "Open the second shutter so that more light may come in."[6]  Does it really matter, though?  Letting the sun in is one way of letting the world in, and maybe the reverse is also true.


Thanks for reading
here's wishing you a happy and luminous New Year!


Because there's much in the world I don't know (but the World Wide Web does) I consulted these sources:
1. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/20/opinion/20cohen.html?_r=1
2. http://www.accidentalhedonist.com/index.php?title=wassail
3. http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/2731/
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_M._Schulz

6. http://www.utne.com/2002-07-01/famous-last-words.aspx

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Marsha Mathews' Northbound Single-Lane

Northbound Single-Lane by Marsha Mathews
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom



Marsha Mathews' first chapbook Northbound Single-Lane was recently published by Finishing Line Press in a lovely handcrafted-looking edition with a cover illustration of a magnified grasshopper that immediately drew me in.

Mathews' disarmingly accessible style kept me turning the pages through this 19-poem collection, and I appreciated the arrangement of the poems both chronologically in terms of the speaker's personal narrative but also, true to the title, directionally northward, albeit with a detour here and there.

And, of course, the final poem brings the speaker home both to her native Florida, the point of departure, but we also realize by this point in the collection that "northbound" has another meaning as well, as does "single-lane."  The speaker's decades-long journey, taken in the company of two daughters who occasionally aggravate but more often inspire, ends when she finds herself sitting alone but un-lonely, finally free from the domination of two powerful griefs, first for a father who passed away and second for a husband who walked away, on the dock her father built:  "On this dock I once watched/ the horizon through my father's eyes./ Cigar scent choked the salt./ I now see the ladder at the end of the fill."

By this point, the speaker has come a long way since a poem early in the collection, "Merry-Go-Whorl," in which the dissolution of a marriage was portrayed as a slowly dawning horror:

You snuggle
into this complacency
till one day
the person you love most
averts his face.
Living room walls open
& out prance
blue unbridled hyenas.
Your house crumbles
into a powdery rubble of questions.

In a later poem,  "Lone Goose," Mathews shows her skill for crafting an interwoven conceit when she compares the goose's morning call and its disruption of the fragile security of a tranquil lake to the fragile psychic security she has tentatively begun to build while taking refuge at the lake, also shattered by the same noise, like a jarring meditation bell.

The daughters appear as constants in the narrative, comfort amid the uncertainty.  In "Abigail's Antiques," one daughter panics her mother by practicing ballet steps oblivious to the breakable merchandise in the eponymous store, but Mathews gracefully turns the poem to make apparent what is ultimately of value to the mother:  "... for her, there's no breaking./ Even if she leaps."

This territory is risky when it comes to avoiding the maudlin, and Mathews doesn't always manage to steer completely clear of it, but she does avoid going over the edge.

And occasionally, a more caustic tone emerges, as in "The Sectioning," a pitch-perfect and in fact one of the strongest poems here:

The first time you see her
she is crying.  For weeks,
screams tear the air.

As you drive to the grocery store,
her voice rides in your temples.
You check the mirror,
sure that she is following.

The relatively long final poem is the natural culmination of the collection, and it begins compellingly:

On the dock my father built
I watch lights from beach houses
quiver toward me,
streak across Boca Ciega Bay.
The moon shoots itself
to the water.  Light spins, flashes
like Spanish doubloons.
They dazzle, tempt me with miracle.  
Yet the neighbor's dog howls.  
A gull pounds the air with its wings.  
A mullet slaps the surface.  
The grainy boards beneath my feet
are real enough.  What then?

Halfway through, the breakthrough:  "I remembered laughter." 

The closing lines of the final stanza leave us with the collection's most luminous imagery:

Tones draw into seawall's hollows,
lamp shells.  They cluster
& shine like pearls,
holding off everything
empty.

The speaker's quest for identity began in the opening poem, in which she as a girl injected a grasshopper with red dye because "I ached for something/ to inject myself with/ to make me shine."

In the final poem, the world makes its presence truly felt to the speaker, and is moved in turn by what she discovers in the penultimate stanza, "... music never before heard:/ my notes."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: Karla Linn Merrifield's The Urn

Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom


Karla Linn Merrifield's new chapbook The Urn is dedicated to her husband Roger Weir, whose prostate cancer is in the final stage although it appears to have been in remission when at least some of these poems were written.  She presents the chapbook's twenty-three poems both as a tribute to a still-living loved one (as opposed to a posthumous elegy, which can only be appreciated by the bereaved) as well as an exploration of her own grief as she comes to terms with the deferred but certain loss of her partner.

It is a brave undertaking, and the poems Merrifield shares with Roger and with us are especially moving in light of the circumstances we know inspired them, but most would stand alone even if we didn't have this knowledge.


Merrifield was an Everglades National Park artist-in-residence in 2009, and her fluency in describing nature is evident in the most finely crafted of these poems.  Many describe the life in Florida that the author and her husband share.

The strong opening poem, "No Mainland Visible, Islands Only," ends with:

who else falls prey?

husks of spider crabs strewn
on this beach with candor
reply the chain is out of order

two red-shouldered hawks
eye me twice     curve into
morning     shredding mackerel clouds
 
When the author's tone occasionally falters or overreaches, the grieving speaker returns to nature as a source of strength and solace, and both form and content are back on sure footing.

"The Calling" begins:

The dapper clan of backyard avians
            comes calling to celebrate
                     with me your cancer’s remission.

Chickadee, titmouse, junco, downy—
            quartet in a spectrum of grays-to-black—
                     feather the sun this mild November morning.


One exception to the nature rule is the breezy poem "Soundtrack for the Man Who Wore Bow Ties with No Camera..." which hitchhikes up the coast and back in time to the New York of the '70s, deftly weaving Simon & Garfunkel song references with semi-nostalgic reflections of a carefree, dissolute past:

Those were my beret days of truant, sleazy hours
at play as ex-hippie-exiled-to-the-city,

tripping out on jazz combos at Storyville at noon
or late-night Bleeker Street blues,
with wine and a joint, a screw.                   
It was another November morning,
lifetimes ago. The promo man from Playboy

drove me in his slick ’59 machine 
down by the schoolyard in Corona, Queens,
past the police station, over to Julio’s ’hood.
He snapped in the cassette and we listened
to Paul sing the gospel, believing we’d never

burn out; no one was ever going to die
because no one had, no one we personally knew.
   


But she returns to nature in the final two poems.  The very last is set in Florida, but
the one before, "Wake," is set in another wild place on the other side of the continent, where she describes an urn much larger than a mantle could hold, where ashes are scattered "in choppy waters off Orcas Island."

Still, I fancifully wish for the man
I have loved; so I whistle
for a kingfisher to chant this passage
with blue-spangled feathers and blue-
crowned calling above waves. 
He will behold my bright bird up and down,
along, over his deep home,
this fjord where I give him living blue.

 
The best sort of gift is one given at the right time, and that's the beauty of this timely labor of love.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pushcart Prize Nominations

We are nominating three pieces for the 2012 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology, as follows:

  • "Discoveries" by Sandra Kohler (poetry)
  • "Eight Prayers For Cobalt-60" by Karen An-hwei Lee (poetry)
  • "Natural Order" by August Evans (short fiction)

These pieces all appeared in our Fall/Winter 2010 edition which was published earlier this week.

Congrats and best of luck to our nominees!


We are taking a one-week hiatus from the blog series for the Thanksgiving holiday and will be back next weekend with a review of Karla Linn Merrifield's chapbook The Urn.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fall/Winter Issue

If you haven't visited the mag lately, check out the new Fall/Winter issue, which is now live!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ke Huang: On Matchmaking

My mother refused the first marriage offer presented to me. She would not tell me about it until years later and there are days I wish she had consulted me before the refusal.

Overlooking the 18th floor to the city that still clings to its maritime exploration of the past, tendered from one window a hill hoarded with russet-tiled chalky buildings cloaking the crown of the São Jorge Castle and, on the other, an assortment of variegated condominiums framing the blue wavy Tagus and its white hairband Vasco da Gama Bridge.

While I swept the faux plank flooring, mother waved the mop for the watery finish. We ended our discussion of the plan to visit the house of my parents' best friends.

"You know," mother began, "Lizhen a-yi once told me that you and her Shengguo should have gotten together."

I forgot about my dust-gathering duties: "When did that happen?" The least of my doubts was questioning the veracity of her comment. Since I saw several Chinese films and TV shows where parents made the marriage arrangements for their children, my inquiry concerned why mother had left me out.

"Don't know," she answered more focused on making a smudge on the floor go away, "she mentioned once. He isn’t right for you, you're going abroad for college and he barely graduated high school."

Was mother right? Did my fate make me that different from Shengguo? Maybe he went on excursions to Paris and Rome but would not share my years of studying media and mingling with aspiring filmmakers in the two liberal American Meccas. While he stayed in Europe and dealt with the cardigan sweater trading, I went on writers' workshops where all our knitted goods were the interlacing of plots, characters and dialogue.

The marital arrangements for Lizhen a-yi and A-Zhong buobuo’s sole progeny doesn't end here. A few years after, mother would go on a business trip to China and run into a distant female cousin. Ma came back praising Lihui jiejie as if she were the Chinese Grace Kelly and introduced Lihui to Shengguo. The two had their inter-continental courtship and have been happily married for five years.

In a society that preaches women to follow the three obediences of father (before marriage), husband (when married) and son (in widowhood), I see mother's meddling in other couples as her subversions to patriarchy. Like an executive producer of a dating reality show, her role as matchmaker gives her carte blanche to access the life of a family, interviewing immediate relatives, arranging a meet of the two young contestants and waiting for the season to unfold. Granted mother doesn't get the paycheck of a Mike Fleiss but the set of bed linens she receives every time her matches end in marriage must have a sentimental value equivalent to the pay of any producer of a hit ABC show.

Mother's "dating show" seasons have had a mixed success. Her first couple, which she matched when we still lived in China, had a rather gruesome end. The newly married husband lost control of his bike while on a commute and plunged down a river. According to mother, when the corpse was hoisted out, the swollen body still clutched on to the bike. Personally, I would have taken the tragedy as a sign that I am no matchmaker material but not mother, she has introduced four times more couples than the times she has birthed children.

Ma doesn't even sound that different from TV executives I have heard speak at entertainment industry seminars and panel discussions. If they had a credit in hit shows, they were more than willing to admit they contributed for the success, but when a program flops, they will be the first to voice out they were not to blame. Mother will tell you how many of her matchees have evolved in blissful marriages and produced healthy children but most likely omit the river-bike misfortune.

Despite being aware of her limitations, I was always convinced that her method was for me. Maybe mother did stop my first arrangement but she could know a single man in her social network that could be a suitable prospective husband.


"You want a what?" A good American friend of mine blurted out. Elise was driving us down the leafy section of Santa Monica Boulevard for bar-hopping on the neon-blinking Sunset Strip.

"An arranged marriage," I answered, surprised that Elise and I had never addressed the topic before.

"What if you don't love him and end up miserable?"

"You're talking about forced marriage, an arranged marriage is when a man and a woman are introduced by someone else but have the choice to decide if they want to get married."

"That’s matchmaking! Your mother is a matchmaker," Elise continued while turning down her car radio, "still, I would try finding someone I love myself before I took on matchmaking."

“That’ll save you from buying a set of bedsheets for the matchmaker.” I tried to joke while hiding what really puzzled me. Could Elise be right? Just because mother could help me find a man didn't exclude me from trying other ways. For six months, I gave dating a try. It included the more "traditional" ways like flirting at Halloween parties, signing-up for a couple of online sites, cultural events for Chinese UCLA grad students and even the more unorthodox methods such as speed dating and going out with someone who picked me up at the Big Blue Bus stop. 

For the benefit of those who don't take the public transport in Los Angeles, let me apprise you that there is a tacit hierarchy for the omnibus network. I would have never spoken to a man while riding an orange or red Metro bus but the lime-colored Culver City and royal blue Santa Monica vehicles are in another category. Since CCB and BBB cover the suburban and beach residential areas, their riders are less likely to have a putrid smell and more prone to wear unsoiled attire than the counterparts of the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 

Another excuse why I trusted Mr. BBB was that he was a fellow UCLA grad student with Israeli parents but raised in South Africa. My maternal chromosome envisioned that if we were to pursue a relationship, it could mean that our combined international backgrounds would birth children who could call homes the regions of North America, Western Europe, Subsaharan Africa, The Levant and East Asia. But like the man who preceded and the one who succeeded him, Triple B decided that we should just be friends. I don’t mean to bitch. These males had a good reason to fear a serious relationship. In a town where they can play with voluptuous aspiring actresses and Playmates wanna-bes, a flat-chested vegan creative writing MFA-candidate whose only asset is her adequate legs doesn't make her premier girlfriend material. Fall quarter ended, holiday lights fettered L.A. vegetation and I gave my romance adventures a rest to return to Portugal to my Christmas-and-Hanukkah-less jia.


I dug through my leather-less closet and picked out items that could be donated to the collection box at the Buddhist association to which mother belonged. Her soft voice yelled out: "Come here, quick!"

Mother had told me that she would call me once she got connected to a female cousin from Shanghai to discuss my plan to return to China once my American student visa terminated.

I sped down the chilly hall, advancing past the alcove shimmering crimson and golden Buddha figurines; stepped into ma and ba's room and plunked on the chair beside her. We faced a humming desktop computer and an E.T.-shaped webcam. On the left corner of the screen, the image of Cousin Gulan's oval face framed by an ebony bob cut fluttered, her eyes casting down as she could only be avoiding her webcam to watch the screen.

We exchanged pleasantries, conferred about my living arrangements if I were to settle in Shanghai and cut into the tofu meat of the conversation.

"A friend from my office. Now he’s back to school for a Ph.D. in engineering... The only thing is that you’ll tell me he’s too old."

"He is too old," mother interjected as she adjusted her dewy green beaded jade necklace.

You've been talking through this without telling me? I parried my annoyance and asked instead: "Is he over 30?"

"Thirty-two," cousin nodded. The remote connection mismatched her voice to her image.

"But he's quiet," mother tapped my forearm, "listen to your cousin, she knows what she's talking about."

"He has great temper," cousin added and I couldn’t help to imagine that she reminded me of a pirated poorly-dubbed novela.

"You don't need to worry about me now."

Mother cut in: "You think this is worrying? You can’t have deadlines for these things. When you get to Shanghai, it's not like there’ll be men lined up after to marry you."

My head continued to cogitate and heard words pour out of my mouth: "With the time I have left from my visa, I'm going to apply for a Ph.D. in America."

"You're not coming home to teach English?" Cousin's flickering screen image frowned.

"It could be a good idea," mother said and then took a sip from her clay-textured tea mug, "then if she wants to go back home to teach, she’ll be qualified for universities."

I decided not to tell them that what mainly swayed me to stay in America for a handful more years was that I was hooked with the idea of finding love; of spending time with someone not because a matchmaker said we were suitable but because we were lucky to have found each other. Maybe L.A. wasn't the place to meet a serious male but I would move to a small college town and give it another try. Most single women snicker when I tell them that I realized that being in L.A., it's easier to get accepted into a doctorate program than meeting a future husband. A less of a laughing matter was that I was seduced by the American ways of coming across a beau that isn’t just an amenable partner. My plan would, as the Chinese expression goes, "one arrow double vultures;" by completing research in an area of interest while questing for romance on the side.

Cousin and mother were not to blame for the likelihood of their misunderstanding me. If etymological roots can suggest the origin of an idea, then it is revealing that the term "romance" in Mandarin is lanman, a close transliteration of the Latin word. As much as we Chinese pride ourselves for our five-millennia-long history, the idea of romantic love is most likely an European import. While devotion and duty for families is customary in our culture, the feeling that moves St. Valentine's Day may come from the "exotic" Western world, an idea that had lured me.


As a Portuguese of Chinese decent, Ke Huang learned most of her English from watching Hollywood movies.  She has a B.S. from Syracuse and MFA in screenwriting from UCLA.  Her writing consists of comedy, drama and horror stories about ethnic experiences. 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Guest Review: Contemporary American Women: Our Defining Passages, Carol Smallwood and Cynthia Brackett-Vincent, editors

All Things That Matter Press, 2009
Reviewed by Marian Matyn


This well-written, easily read, and interesting book is a compilation of articles by women, all well-educated.  The themes of the book cover passages of the average woman’s life.  This includes physical, emotional, family, career, empowerment changes and challenges, reconnecting, dealing with, and accepting parts of our lives and histories.  Importantly, it also covers the relationships women have with others, friends, family, and foes, that cause us to change, or evaluate our options.  Some of these topics, such as one’s aging body, or the stress of career choices, difficult relationships and positive, affirming relationships, are those to which all women can relate.  Other topics, such as surviving sexual abuse or the loss of a spouse, and the accompanying emotional traumas, are topics some of us have suffered, but all of us can feel empathy for those who endure. 

Why read this “women’s book” and not another?  Hope.  The hope that is so affirming and omnipresent in this book is an essential thread that runs through the entire work, binding the stories together.  Through all the changes and challenges of life, all the people who help and affirm, and those who seek to denigrate women, the authors not only endured their experiences, but moved forward into the future with hope.  

This is not a depressing victim story from the past, and while the stories are autobiographical in nature, it is more than that.  A strong sense of spirituality, and of empowerment, accompanies hope throughout the book, encouraging the reader. “That despite what weighs us down, even the tiniest movement or the smallest decision moves us closer to the light.” (p. 152, “Closer to the light,” Hope Payson) This is what the book is all about:  that each of us, with hope, can make a choice that empowers us to move towards a brighter, happier, more fulfilling future.

Two of the stories which I continue to ponder long afterwards are “I couldn’t walk, talk or read:  becoming a crow again” by Katie McKy, and “Returning to Russia: Returning home” by Yelizaveta P. Renfro.  Both of these stories illustrate a turning point in the life of a girl or young woman.  Katie McKy notes the moment she chose not to ridicule, but rather to befriend, a girl who fit in neither physically nor socially at school.  Previously ostracized because of speech and walking challenges into a lowly school reading and social group called the crows, McKy chose to befriend another crow.  As she notes “Suffering can bequeath us compassion. Of course, it can also curse us with bitterness.  We get to choose.  Of course, choosing well might mean becoming a crow once again, which I did. Rather, I just admitted to what I’d always been.” (p.7)  McKy became a teacher, helping damaged children who had themselves become crows, and their parents.

The second story, “Returning to Russia: Returning home” by Yelizaveta P. Renfro, is the story of a self-destructive fifteen-year-old girl who is drinking, using drugs, smoking, destroying her bedroom, and flunking school.  With her mother, Renfro traveled home to her ill Russian grandparents.  She lived with them for a summer in a tiny, cockroach-infested apartment, lacking air conditioning or privacy.  Here, she became aware of others and their dismal living conditions.  Renfro kept a detailed diary and, later, typed her observations.  She returned to California greatly affected, began writing, and left her old ways behind.  Later, with her own daughter, Renfro recalled returning to her destroyed teenage bedroom to find her mother had cleaned it and spread a bedspread on her bed to welcome her home. “Only now do I realize that through such small actions we impose order, which is a kind of love… [Of her daughter, Renfro notes] “She will run away from me, too, literally perhaps, but certainly figuratively, I can only hope that she will return home again.” (p. 95)  To me, this story demonstrates another individual making a choice, becoming aware of others around them, and choosing hope for the future, and hoping for the next generation.

Too often, the books I read in college women’s studies courses were about a woman’s endurance, and acceptance of an unhappy life with a father who did not appreciate or respect his daughter, a husband who did not understand her, or a dream abandoned.  Her life was misery.  It was all about negative relationships with men, no options for work or life, not having choices, working for less pay than a man, working in an unsatisfying job, and being discriminated against in many ways.  My male college housemates once commented on how all the books in women’s studies were sad and blamed men.  Well, it is a new century since I took women’s studies, and clearly the women in this book are more self-aware and have more options than the suffering women of the past.  Part of that difference is education, providing women a chance for a quality job with pay and benefits, and laws preventing gross discrimination and allowing a vote.  Like the book’s cover image of a woman looking towards the rising sun, the authors figuratively and collectively look towards the new day with hope, for an improved, empowered life, not just for them, but for all women.

Overall the writers tell us that highly educated, modern American women have options that allow us to determine our future and follow our dreams.  It would be interesting to read stories from the life of women who are not as well educated as these writers.  What do the women without a degree working at Wal-Mart, trying to pay their bills, think of their lives?  Or, what about the women who make negative choices?  Do they find their lives inspiring enough to write about for the benefit of other women?  Do they have hope?  Perhaps that is a topic for a future book.


Marian Matyn is the Archivist of the Clarke Historical Library and an Assistant Professor at Central Michigan University. The author of a number of archival and history articles, Marian is currently writing a book on Michigan circus history. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Best of the Web Nominations

We are proud to announce our first Best of the Web nominations.  If any or all of our nominees are selected, they will appear in Dzanc Books' 2011 anthology.

I have to say it was a tough decision narrowing three issues' worth of work we're really proud of down to only three pieces.  All three poets appeared in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue, and two of them were also our top poetry contest winners.  The list is:


  • Jessica Cuello, "In the Spired House"
  • Whitney Vaughan, "O Joy, Mouths the Muse to Her Suitor"
  • Clare L. Martin, "Winter Brought Out All the Knives"

Congrats and good luck to all of our nominees!

And on this topic, although we informed the nominees, we're very sorry that we neglected to announce our Pushcart Prize nominees for 2011 here on the blog.  (The prizes were announced earlier this year.)

Our selections for Pushcart were two short stories from the Summer 2009 issue that we really loved, as follows:


  • Janey Bennett, "Eeva Dreams of Falling"
  • Teresa Peipins, "That Underwater Place"

We will be announcing our 2012 Pushcart nominees later this year.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: Kristine Ong Muslim's A Roomful of Machines

A Roomful of Machines by Kristine Ong Muslim
Searle Publishing, 2010,
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom


Kristine Ong Muslim's first full-length poetry collection reminds me of the first useful definition of good writing that I heard, which was my father's (intentional or inadvertent) paraphrase of Samuel Johnson's quote, "The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new."

In A Roomful of Machines, Kristine Ong Muslim demonstrates her ease with the latter by taking for her subjects inanimate objects and viewing them from the inside out, making a reader care about their isolated, sedentary existences and even mourn their seemingly redundant demises.

This sort of project requires a fearless leap of imagination -- the kind of agile imagination that adult writers often struggle to access, and so it's no surprise to read that the author has a previous collection of children's poems to her credit, making it easier to understand why she is not afraid to take the leaps necessary to really see things -- non-sentient things -- with new eyes and offer real surprises.

Over and over again, I found myself envying the poems in this collection, not for their success, although they do succeed, but for the originality of the spirit that animates their subjects.

In "Tea Cup," a chip signals that the object in question is headed for the dumpster, and so it is warned:  "Chances are, you will break yourself/ sliding down the garbage chute./ At least, you will not be alone./ Your shards will share your pain."  As in many of these poems, the lines sound straightforwardly simple on a first reading, and take on depth with each rereading.

"From Scratch" takes a slight departure from elucidating the secret lives of objects to elucidating the secret lives of authors, and it seems oddly fitting to place the authorial voice in this context:  There is no way/ to stop me from/ confessing to murder/ in poetry.// It is all right with me/ to have the tunnel inspected;/ it is where all/ the secret blood must go."  In the same way that a handmade implement cooperates with its owner by surrendering itself for the sake of its intended use, the author cooperates with the reader, surrendering herself for the sake of the text's intended use.

We return to this territory again in a later poem which asserts a role for the author that is self-protective as well as nurturing to the reader, ending with "Voice is a city that pilfers pain,/ quiets us with its tiny lights."

In another poem about language, "The Distant Tongue," the immediacy of "Each uttered word will smell of rapture,/ of the insistence of suicide," while in the silence that follows "... we will all be shrunken to the size/ of a box of salt, a mouthful of dead fish..."

The next poem, "And," captures just as movingly the larger, more oceanic feeling from which a poem is seized and then whittled down to size.

In "Still," for another twist on the main theme of sentient objects, a man on a bench is compared to "... a glove fashioned out/ of winter's skin. Spent and hardened.  Like an/ unfinished interview.  His right hand is shaking."  Somehow the picture from each angle is the same:  the reader is jarred into empathy.

Other poems jar in other ways.  "Sudden Elsewhere" begins, "Assume you have/ nothing to lose/ and cannot dwell in/ a favorite memory."  That is the sort of beginner's mind that permits an author to share a new way of seeing things, and it explains what make this collection so enjoyable, as well as haunting.

"Departure" imagines death as a soft place of deferred fulfillment:  "One day, the hills in the distance will disappear,/ and the sunset will explode into reds and grays--/ the only real colors we know. We will walk,/ hand in hand, out of whatever room we have wanted/ to own. Each wish will become a want./ Each finger will unravel the cold/ until there is nothing else left to touch."

The poem that follows, "Balancing Act," is taut with dread:  "Summer is a snapped twig/ glued back in place./ But it will dangle again./ You'll see."

The final poems, placed in the section entitled "Eulogies," are also disparate in stance and tone.  Written from the point of view of the object in question, "Death of a Firefly" is personal and heartbreaking.  Written from a demolisher's perspective, "Death of a House" is observant and analytical, even as it speaks of scooping out and swallowing hunger; and "Death of a Cereal Box" is sensuous and whimsical.

The eulogy to "Nothing" is the least moving among these (good riddance to Nothing, I'd say ... who would miss it?) until the final stanza:  "For years, no one has ever heard of Nothing/ and what has become of its body, the husk/ that is so empty every one thinks it is/ impossible to destroy."

Nothing, antithesis to sentience in all its manifestations, real or imagined, still permeates the realm of objects and beings.  But naming it seems to put at least a temporary dent in its power, and that's just one good reason to give these bravely original poems a look.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review: Lisa Marie Basile's White Spiders

White Spiders by Lisa Marie Basile
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Lisa Marie Basile's five-poem chapbook, White Spiders, appeared in September as part of a fascinating ongoing series published online in PDF format by Gold Wake Press.

The image of a playfully childlike statue framed by the vibrant colors of a tropical locale is a good visual introduction to these vivid, energetic poems, animated by the dynamics of sexual passion and rich with exotic language and imagery.

The opening poem, "Opera," compares the nuances of a volatile relationship to a cabaletta, an operatic term often referring to an impassioned duet, describing it as "half the tamed greenery of love but more the wild/ jungle where ghosts kill men on foot."

The point is possibly overstated in the final line, "loud, bloody, broken shimmering."  But even when they overreach a bit, as when the next poem, "Us," extends the metaphor of a belly dance from a lover's attentive advance to a larger relationship toward "life" and "humanity," these poems captivate with their bold diction, unabashed sensuality and the sheer way they revel in language, as in the third stanza:  "I swirl circle eights against you,/ you becoming per sempre,/ as I need you.  You say you are/ für immer."

"Patasola" provides an example of Basile's well-controlled command of diction, beginning with "The moon has enough decency/ to wait as I finish removing my clothes.  Only men/ light candles when eager" and ending with "I look like all the women/ you have ever loved.  Death! you cry./ Yes, it is me."

The final poem, "Double Negatives," returns from the female speaker's relationship with a male lover to that of a daughter's with her mother, perhaps intentionally echoing the line in "Us" that asked, "Ever wonder why the cats do it, kneading?/ Because they remember their mothers."  Although not the strongest of the five, this poem hits the right note to close this brief but satisfying collection.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mira Mattar: Beirut 2010

We met in a restaurant in Beirut, overlooking the sea, December, perfect crisp warmth. A rock jutted violently out of this particular patch of sea, known, my aunt told me, to be a favored spot for suicides. I can see why. Turning back from there would be embarrassing and difficult. Crawling back squeaking sorry guys I changed my mind, life is worth it after all. 
 
I hadn't been to Beirut for thirteen years and had bad memories of diarrhea and cold chicken. It was some time in the early nineties when I saw my father's weeping reflection in the car window as his hometown sped and stopped in ruins outside our little yellow cocoon. Scrappy pre-teens in donated t-shirts reading Coca-Cola or Nike flicking cigarette butts and kicking footballs. This time as we walked through new, reconstructed parts of the defiant city he pointed out the bullet holes still in buildings, distinct from the new embellished facades of recovery. 
 
My aunt, at lunch, nervous with sickness and intelligence and excited to see us after so many years of letters and birthday cards scrawled in French-educated, shaky script having been tampered with by doctors for an inconvenient condition. Years of internal and external shocks, treatments. It always seemed, from the stories I'd heard, to be the most likely or honest consequence of the situation she was in. Dreaming of husband and children, seeing strange men in the corners of her eyes, bombs crashing where the sea should be. Now she jumped from memory to memory, leapt into the present, into the tabbouleh and hummus, her brother allowing her half a beer for the special occasion, then back into her long-haired, slim-waisted past, I was a beautiful woman you know
 
I stayed with her, listening, trying to make contact, holding her hand. She gave me random objects from her tiny flat as presents and showed me photographs of her in Russia as a young woman, where she ran away and had to be recovered. She proudly showed off the luxury shopping districts in her town and laughed at the Lebanese capacity to rebuild. Her hair is still black, she reads fiction and makes tea in dirty cups. When I hugged her goodbye I fell for Beirut. 


Mira Mattar is a tutor, freelance writer and reviewer for the TLS and other publications. Her fiction has recently been published in Spilt Milk Magazine. She is also one third of Monster Emporium Press. She lives in South London where she is currently working on her first collection of short stories. You can read her at http://hermouth.blogspot.com

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Guest Review: Carol Smallwood's Lily’s Odyssey

Lily's Odyssey by Carol Smallwood 
All Things That Matter Press, 2010,
Reviewed by Jan Siebold


Some authors use the word “odyssey” to simply represent a journey or a passage of time.  In Lily’s Odyssey author Carol Smallwood takes a more literal approach.  Just as Odysseus spends years making his way home after the Trojan War, Lily struggles to find her true home in the world.

She has encountered her share of cannibals, lotus-eaters, sirens and monsters along the way, but it is her abusive Uncle Walt and his Cyclopic wife Hester (who turned her one good eye away from the incestuous situation years ago) that have haunted Lily’s thoughts and dreams since childhood.

Smallwood’s Homer, like use of a nonlinear plot, is well-suited to the story since Lily’s journey is rather like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle.

With intelligence and humor Lily navigates the passages of her life which include marriage, motherhood, psychotherapy and education.  She even spends time in Ithaca while working on a Master’s Degree in Geology.  In fact, geological references are abundant as Lily explores her lifelong fascination with the formation of the earth and her place on it.  Readers can feel Lily’s sense of frustration at the ever-shifting underground plates that prevent her from finding solid footing.

Orphaned at an early age and sent to live with her aunt and uncle, Lily later explores her obsession about abandoned animals and plants, and eventually discovers its root in her childhood.  What may seem obvious to the reader is not as easily seen by Lily, whose vision of the past has been obscured by the trauma of abuse, insensitivity and denial.

The book begins with the death of Uncle Walt and Lily’s return to the house where she had spent her childhood.  It is there that Lily begins to think about reinventing herself without the existence of Uncle Walt in her life.
   
The author’s use of imagery is at times stunning.  “I heard the train whistle.  I saw myself as a bird following the train as it wound its way through the landscape, leaving only smoke as evidence that it had passed.”  Referring to her aunt, Lily thinks about “Tulips closed as tightly as Aunt Hester’s lips.”

Smallwood’s many cultural, historical, scientific and religious references are a nod to her readers’ awareness, intelligence and curiosity.  They elevate the story and allow us to discover more about Lily’s world and our own.

On a basic level the reader can relate to Lily’s awkward attempts at relationships, and to her wickedly funny observations about people.  We cheer for Lily as she leaves behind her dismissive husband Cal, the lecherous Dr. Schackmann and other toxic people whom she encounters.  We understand as she questions the tenets that were instilled during her strict Catholic upbringing, including “the duties and sufferings of women as wives.”  We yearn for Lily to find the illumination and peace of mind that she seeks.

In a particularly vulnerable moment Lily pens a letter to God.  In the letter she writes, “Women need new paths.  To find our way out of the old labyrinths requires more than one lifetime.”

Through Lily’s Odyssey, Carol Smallwood gives us hope that one lifetime might be enough for Lily and others to find their way.


Jan Siebold, a school library media specialist in East Aurora, New York since 1977, received her MLS from the University of Buffalo. Jan has served as NYLA Secretary and received the NYLA/SLMS Cultural Media Award in 1992. She is the author of Rope Burn (Albert Whitman, 1998), Doing Time Online (Albert Whitman, 2002) and My Nights at the Improv (Albert Whitman, 2005), three middle-school grade-level novels on numerous award lists.
 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Guest Review: Nuala Ní Chonchúir's You

           You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir
           New Island Books, 2010,
           Reviewed by Rachel J. Fenton

Nuala Ní Chonchúir's début novel tells the tale of a young girl who interprets the life she and her siblings inhabit in their urban gothic surroundings with simple yet insightful prose. Set against the ominous and symbolic backdrop of the River Liffey, You contrasts the seeming simplicity of the girl's conclusions about her eventful life with the deeper and more complex ramifications of her mother's behaviour.

There is a central, and somewhat obvious, tragedy to Ní Chonchúir's story, and readers who are unfamiliar with her work may see this as the core of the novel itself; however, Ní Chonchúir is a quiet intellect and You is far more complex than the breezy, fast-flowing, colloquial narrative suggests. The real tragedy of You is its framing of society's criterion for a failed woman.

Woman, in all her broken states, is embodied in You's character tour de force, and each has her patriarchal compare. The protagonist's mother takes up with the picaresque Kit, local butcher and lad about town, and in a scene redolent of Joseph Ferdinand Geuldry's The Blood-Drinkers, he takes her a meat offering which the protagonist turns away from in revulsion. In accepting the bloody gifts, the protagonist's mother is made a prostitute in her daughter's eyes, even if the young girl does not yet know that word, and perhaps an addict in the reader's. The mother's seeming inability to direct her own course in life is a source of consternation to her daughter, yet, in the novel's pivotal scene, it is the inaction of three males which brings about what will be regarded as the books most memorable tragedy.

Ní Chonchúir's skill is her ability to subvert and to break down labels, racism and sexism included, into their core traits and to show they are seamless, as an estuary.  She makes accessible to a wide audience what has often hid in the dense prose of high-end literary fiction and been the seminar agitator of choice for academics. Her prose is both dignifying and empowering to her subjects, and it is her psychological ableness which will mark Ní Chonchúir as a writer of significance.

Rachel J. Fenton is an English writer who paints and lives in Auckland.  Her flash piece "Rogue Trading" was shortlisted for the Fish 2010 One-Page Prize, and links to more of her published work can be found at her blog:  snowlikethought.blogspot.com. She is currently seeking representation for her novels.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cecily Tripplehorn: The Six Percent, A Survivor’s Story

Maybe it was just mother’s intuition. In retrospect it seemed like a premonition. We couldn’t have predicted that my mother’s advice would eventually give me the courage to save my own life.

 “If anything ever happens to you, if you’re ever attacked, scream your lungs out and resist with all your strength. Your chances of attracting attention and getting rescued are better while you’re still in a public place than if you’re taken,” Mom would lecture every time a news report popped up covering someone like Natalee Holloway or Chandra Levy.

“Sure, Mom,” I always replied, humoring her and thinking, what are the odds?

May 17, 2006. Twenty-six years old. It happened in Amarillo, Texas, at a park in an upscale neighborhood referred to as the good side of town. I didn’t have the patience to sit through my boyfriend Jim’s softball game, so I rollerbladed around the field in the humid spring air under the bright stadium lights. The sounds of softball fans cheering drowned out everything else, and the smooth, even rhythms of my stride calmed me and erased the stresses of daily life.

Finally, muscles aching, I headed toward the parking lot to grab my water out of Jim’s truck. That night the fields were so crowded we had to park on the front row. “Perfect,” Jim  had muttered earlier as he squeezed his black Dodge Ram into the tight space. “Right in the fly ball zone.  Might as well paint a big target on my windshield.”

I climbed back into the tall truck and gulped down some Evian like I’d just crossed the Sahara. My breath returned to normal and I stepped out of the truck to make my way toward –

Someone grabbed me in a headlock from behind. Surely just one of the teammates playing a joke, I rationalized. Not Jim though.  He’s busy pitching. Whoever it was threw me into the driver’s seat of another truck beside Jim’s Dodge. A leering face in a red, white and blue doo-rag hovered over my wide eyes and gaping mouth, and it was definitely not Jim, or one of his teammates, or anyone I knew. All logical thought processes froze at that moment as he pressed up against my dangling legs so close I couldn’t move. “Don’t scream,” he snarled as he put his hand over my mouth. Those words made me snap back to reality, and I started screaming as hard as I could. But my screams were indistinguishable from the cheering fans just about 50 feet away.

Then, a flash of silver in front of my face. “Shut up and get in the truck or I’ll slit your throat.” His voice was full of rage. Images of everyone I loved flashed through my mind.  In that instant I knew I wasn’t afraid of death, but I was deathly afraid of what he might want to do to me first. Thoughts of Jim, alone and frantically searching for me after the crowds dispersed before having to call my parents when he realized I was gone were too much to bear.

In a move Jason Bourne would envy, I grabbed the blade of the knife with my bare hand and went Billy Blanks on him. The blade sliced into my palm and fingers, but a rush of adrenaline suppressed the pain. Driven by survival instincts and the determination not to cause my family suffering, I resolved that this man could not, would not control me. There was no way I could kick him with my legs restrained by the weight of his body, but with the keys in my hand I went for his eyes. Never again do I wish to feel the primal urge to kill someone in defense of my own life.

Frustration began to overcome me with the realization that I wasn’t inflicting enough damage. His 5 foot 9, 195 pound construction worker’s build was stronger than my 5 foot 6, 130 pound frame, no matter how many cardio kickboxing classes I’d taken.

But then I sensed that the element of surprise was shifting. He didn’t want to be caught; that much was obvious from the look of shock on his face when I started to resist. And although we hadn’t attracted any outside attention yet, clearly I was more trouble than he had bargained for.

Nevertheless, the punches kept coming and stars danced in front of my eyes. Don’t pass out, I thought to myself. Keep fighting. Don’t pass out.

At last I got in a hard jab to his temple, and as he shook his head, I gathered all my strength to force myself out from underneath his grasp, falling and scraping my knees on the rough asphalt.

But it wasn’t over. He went to grab me again. Just then I looked up to see someone walking into the parking lot. Relief flooded my entire being and I suspected he was an angel disguised as an umpire. Somehow, with my hands shredded and still on rollerblades, I managed to scramble to my feet. Then I was standing near the umpire, Alvino Alvarez. Tears clouded my vision as I gasped, “Please get his license plate.”

My attacker jumped in his work truck with the construction company logo on the door and peeled out, almost running over a couple who tried to block his escape.

Then, a blur. Crowds of gawkers. Police statements. Ambulance. Hospital.

At the hospital, the shock wore off slowly, in layers, like scrubbing ink off skin. A detective was taking yet another statement while doctors and nurses buzzed around. I couldn’t remember my address. I wasn’t even sure about my age at that point.  “It’s okay,” the officer said.  “Temporary memory lapses are typical after trauma.”

“You did the right thing by fighting back,” a nurse commented as the doctor carefully inserted nineteen stitches. “Did you know only six percent of victims manage to escape like you did?” I feigned cheerfulness to assure my boyfriend that I really was okay. Jim stayed at my bedside until we were released an exhausting seven hours later at 5:00 a.m. After a quick stop at the 24 hour pharmacy for some pain meds, at last I could rest.

The next year seemed endless.  My relatively sheltered and comfortable life was now interspersed with periods of anxiety and apprehension. The day after the attack, I identified the attacker, Dewey Mack Evans, from a photo lineup at the police station. Other witnesses corroborated.  The following month, in June, U.S. Marshalls surrounded a gas station across the state border in Oklahoma and took Evans into custody. That September, Jim and I got engaged. The next June, we were married. Then in August, 15 months after the attack, the trial began. Evans and his attorney concocted an elaborate story claiming I attacked him.  The poor guy was just defending himself, the slick lawyer explained.  When they accused me of perjury it started to feel like I was the one on trial.

The jury deliberated for an excruciating four and a half hours before convicting Evans of aggravated kidnapping with a sentence of 80 years in prison. Since he was on parole for armed robbery at the time, he also had to serve the rest of that 10 year sentence. Evans wouldn’t be considered for parole again for at least 40 years at the age of 86. By then he would be too old and decrepit to harm anyone else.

The courtroom trial was over, but my emotional trials were ongoing. My emotions were a confusing mix of pride and guilt, vindication and cynicism, strength and vulnerability. While I tried to deal with the situation without dwelling on it, not a day went by that something or someone wouldn’t remind me of it. Never again would I feel comfortable alone in a parking lot or exercising outdoors by myself. But I was also bizarrely thankful that it had happened to me. If he had chosen a different victim, I might have turned on the T.V. that night to see another Natalee Holloway-esque story, and a predator might still be free.

The haunting faces of missing girls are a repeat occurrence on the nightly news. Each time their parents appear begging, pleading and crying for the return of their daughters, my eyes brim with tears and I feel an inexplicable kinship with these young girls and women I have never met. That could be my family, heartbroken and searching for closure they might never receive. My tears are followed by waves of guilt because I survived and they didn’t.

My happy ending could have been another victim’s final ending.


Cecily Tripplehorn is a survivor, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a high school English teacher.  For this article, she consulted the work Kidnapping: An Investigator's Guide to Profiling by Diana M. Concannon, 1st ed., London 

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Review: Susan Slaviero's Cyborgia

Cyborgia by Susan Slaviero
Mayapple Press, 2010,
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom


Susan Slaviero's first full-length poetry collection, Cyborgia, takes on the ambitious project of imagining what "female" would look like at the dawn of a post-human age, and her playful, cerebral, at times demanding poems rise to the challenge, densely packed and fully loaded with visceral imagery and wickedly inventive wordplay.  These poems are worth reading because they are fun, provocative and at times disturbing but also because they have something to say about a moment in our collective future that may come sooner than we think and what it could mean for one gender in particular.


The epigraph by Donna Haraway is a quote I'd come across as a college student, when the territory of feminism was much more familiar to me than that of cybernetics, and it made an impression on my evolving feminist consciousness, as well as the way I viewed technology, having been one of the last in my class to hold on to her Smith-Corona word processor rather than trek down to the computer lab:  "I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess."


That statement opens so many areas of inquiry surrounding the dynamics of power between genders, the nature of the choice to claim a sexual identity or identities versus androgyny, and the fundamental question of what it means to be human.  It prompted a shift in the way I viewed technology and its relationship with my gender, past and future.  Slaviero's collection explores all of this territory with a welcome balance of optimism and caution.


In the two sections that comprise the first half of the collection, "The Red Queen Hypothesis" and "Celluloid Marionettes," Slaviero imagines the genesis of the female cyborg.  In "Agalmatophilia," she is an animated doll, who "sees you as architecture, as blue libido," and in "Parthenogenesis," she is a mother of mutinous clone daughters.


The cyborg creations in these sections are largely passive, deriving what power they may possess from what they lack, the vulnerability of human flesh and how that shades consciousness.  Violence is enacted upon them, but they only respond insofar as they are programmed.  In "Bride of Frankenstein 2.0," the cyborg speaker hears "the cadence" of her "own dissection" but is indifferent:  "... This flat/ affect is characteristic of my vampire/ < species > / I will not burn, even at blue temperatures."

"Consider the Dangers of Reconstructing Your Wife as a Cyborg" ends on a different kind of note, in which self-awareness implies grave danger for the would-be cyber-Svengal addressed in the poem:  "... You are superfluous.  This house is fully of zygotes, the tran-/ sister radio, the refrigerator.  Lampwire and smoke detectors.  In the/ twenty-six minutes since I've been resurrected I have devised about/ ten different ways to disassemble you.  Imagine what I could do with/ an hour and a box of power tools."


The third section, "Boolean Fairy Tales," was the most fun for me, as I've admired Slaviero's unique takes on folklore and mythology for several years.


There is a millennia-old tradition of myths being adapted and re-adapted to accommodate new questions that crop up as a culture's technology evolves and its prevailing values somewhat laggingly absorb the shock, and here Slaviero brings familiar tales and tropes into the Cyber Age.  It's a brave new world of robot wolves, cybernetic mermaids and gynoid armies.  


And again here there is a progression of the poems' cyborg heroines from animated dolls to self-aware agents.  The section begins with "Bluebeard's Clockwork Bride," where the familiar villain grows bored with his new creation because she cannot suffer, and so he remakes here so that "This time, he gives her skin./ This time, he programs her/ to be afraid of fire."


However, in "Gretal Discusses Her Prosthetic Arm," the heroine delights in what she can do for herself:  "... Now, this/ mechanical limb works better/ than flesh.  I chop onions for stew/ with a built-in chef's knife, open/ wine with my corkscrew thumbs./ I have become more than mere/ girl; I am an armory/ dressed in gingham and lace./ You would never suspect/ that my ulna is a loaded gun,/ that the bend in my elbow bears teeth."


In "A Cybernetic Mermaid Dreams of the Sea," the speaker claims to have "... no interest in catching sailors/ or cliff diving.  I have become something different/ than what you intended...."


"The First Cyborg Epistle:  Mythology," from the final section, "Ontology of the Virtual Body," addresses the curiosity of a corporeal race toward our inscrutable successors:  "You try to understand me as ergonomic, the random flickering of cir-/ cuits for this dolls' apocalypse.  Yes, I dream, but not of sheep, electric or oth-/ erwise.  I am the corkscrew universe, my eyes metalmoons, the planets/ hidden between aluminum rods of warped spine.  What monstrous/ couplings and recouplings make this avatar of steel ships and colored/ wire?  You ask for clarification but I am not programmed to answer/ your metaphysical questions...."


It's not a new problem.  How can anyone fathom the universe behind another's eyes, whether the computational machinery ticking there is carbon-based or silicon?  We're all enigmas to one another at the same time as we're reflections of the star-stuff of which we're all made.  But in the post-human age that Slaviero imagines, in which one self-aware being can fashion another, turn her on with a switch, and then run for cover, things get just a little more complicated.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Diane Glancy: A Rocky Shelf

I’m not sure when it occurred to me.  Maybe it was while traveling between St. Paul and Kansas City.  Maybe it was the early retirement program at my college in Minnesota, though I was old enough to retire.  I wanted to be closer to my three grandchildren.  I had been commuting anyway.  Some semesters, leaving after classes, it was dark before I made it to Iowa.  There also was the weather, snow and ice.

I signed the retirement-agreement contract, which required the exiting professor to give up tenure and enter a four-year sabbatical at half-pay, and wrote a prospectus of what I planned to accomplish during the four years.  It was mostly writing projects.  Nowhere was the real reason listed—to be a grandmother.

I wanted to enter that world of young grandchildren that is only there for a while—because it fit in this situation—because it was possible—before they are so engrossed in their activities they tell me to wait in the car.  Soon they will be on with their lives and I imagine myself a backdrop, less important in their lives, as it should be.  Already, I am the outsider; once in a while, an insider.  I know the tightrope between, and the frustration of dealing with three young children each one going their own way.  I already have felt estrangement with the oldest because of his insistence on dominating his two younger siblings.  I don’t like the meanness they thrust on one another when they fight.

Sometimes I return to my house and sit by myself in the quiet.  Sometimes I even feel a slight anger.  I was a tenured professor.   I could do what I wanted.  What I eventually wanted, was to be with my grandchildren.  I gave up my beloved position of 17 years, and tenure for which I had worked hard, and worried over just a few short years earlier.

I wanted to be a part of their lives because I began to see that being a grandmother was a continuity.  What I couldn’t do for my children, or didn’t know to do, or was too harried, or unhappily married, I could re-do.  Being a grandmother is a revision.  A chance to rewrite.  A privilege to add to what their mother is doing very well, though her husband travels for his work, and she is under the stress and pressure of young children, and as with current life-style a hundred activities a day.  One Saturday alone is filled with soccer games, birthday parties, a multitude of errands.

I wanted a chance to be a better grandmother than mother, in an unsatisfying marriage, impatient, hurt, longing for a way out.

I wanted to provide stories for my grandchildren.  “What book did you bring me, Grandma?”  They ask when I return from a trip.

It is in stories, oral and written, that I have my being.  On a recent sleep-over, I read six books to Libby, who had opened a 7th when I turned out the light.  I want to provide stories for my grandchildren.  I am buyer of books, a filler of bookshelves.

A grandmother’s story-telling is cartography.  It is map-making.  This is where we have been.  This is where we can go because of words.  Cherokee, which I do not speak, is a language like a lake with its rippling edges, the water, moving, sometimes restless, always with fish in it, mysterious, the submerged meaning, the reason for water is a holder of fish, as language is the holder of words to tell us where and how we are going.   I also want to instill them with a sense of faith.

There are times with my four-year old granddaughter, Libby, especially, that I feel the concept of time space in physics.  A connection back to my grandmothers born in the 1880’s.  A continuum of voice, of story.  A physical presence of the past that I give my granddaughter, not in words, but in essence, in connection to something larger than the two of us.   It is not in words, as I said, but a sensed distillation of time in a small shape that is the moment between us.

On Fridays, sometimes, I take Libby to art lessons at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.   It is where I went as a child.  It is where I took my children.  Afterwards, Libby and I go to Winstead’s on the Plaza for fries and a milk shake.  This week, when I read her the flavors, she says, “cherry.”   As she is drinking it, she tells me she likes cherry shakes, “but not a cherry in a circle.”   I want to be there to receive that kind of information from her.  I want to be there when she takes a risk of a shake she may not like.

At the Nelson, Libby works with clay.  “It isn’t ready to bring home yet,”  she tells me with a sense of importance, but she gives me a collage she made.  It is a piece of black paper with fragments of colored paper glued to it, and a few crayon markings on the fragments.  I like her work because I am a worker in fragments.  I am separated between cultures, places, languages.  I have the grandchildren’s drawings in my house and at my cabin.  At my house, Libby chooses to add her collage to a paper-construction robot made by the boys, which they taped to my dining-room wall.  Actually, her collage improves the robot greatly.

While she is at her art lesson, I walk through the museum.  There are several of Henry Moore’s pieces at the Nelson.  I identify with one in particular, Draped Seated Woman, 1957-58, because I am draped with the heavy covering of grandmother.  In a note beside the sculpture, Moore wrote that he wanted to “connect the contrast in the size of the folds, here small, fine and delicate, in other places big and heavy with the form of the mountains, which are the crinkled skin of the earth.”  Moore’s sculpture is a nearly life-sized woman cast in bronze, her face a wedge without features.  Almost like the beak of a bird.  But when I look at the folds in the drape covering the woman, I see the folds as waves on a lake.

I want to say that grandchildren make you selfless.   It is all them.  Their clothes.  Their toys.  Their furniture.  Their happiness.  But it is selfishness.  They are mine.  Mine.  All mine.  No one else can have them.  They also are where I meet defeat in my importance/unimportance in their lives.  I used to walk into class and students listened.  I marked papers and gave out grades.  “Do you know, grandchildren, what your grades would be for today?”  I have wanted to ask.

Even in the early days, when I was writing at my small desk and my children were young, I felt the pull between work and children.  I want also to be there for my daughter, to give her a break now and then, to help her with her load.

Now, when there is a battle of the wills, I know it is their lives that are important.  Their road ahead.  I step back where I could have lead the class.  I could march into it, but instead I follow. What I have now is a departure from history.  A center that a grandmother had.  Not it is auxiliary.  It is beside the family.  They have their own lives.  I can contribute and not get in the way.   I give the reins to them.  It is the new definition of grandmother because I want them to be independent and responsible for themselves.  That is the new direction.  I have to let go.  I return to my house with relief.  I can sit at my word processor and write.  I can read.  I can go to the lake by myself.  I can get lost in my own projects, which is what I want to do for the afternoon.  I can plan for my next writer’s workshop.  I can pack for a trip.  I can still drive.  Sometimes I don’t see them for days.

My own maternal grandmother lived on a farm.  We had visits there in the 1940’s when I was growing up, but I remember her as distant.  Practical.  Once I took a chick into the farmhouse and was petting it when she saw me, and asked what I was doing with the inference I was silly.  It was a chick she later would behead with an ax for supper, when it was bigger and covered with white feathers.  I remember those little Ann Boleyns of the barnyard.  I have found my own beheading in giving up part of myself for my grandchildren.  I want to provide that presence for my grandchildren.  I want to have an awareness of themselves in the world.

Often, in the past, the Indian grandmothers named the children and had a definite authoritative role.  It is something I wouldn’t think of doing with the independent daughter and daughter-in-law I have.  It would cause trouble.  Resentment.  I feel I have information that sits at the center of the world, yet I am left with duties I have at the moment, shortening a penguin suit for my granddaughter for the current Halloween.  Last year, it was white feathers I sewed back onto her chicken costume when they kept falling off.   Sometimes, I also read to Libby and Charlie while they mother helps their older brother, Joseph, with his homework.

My purpose as grandmother is to cause fun to form in the daily routine, to distract from trouble, to console, to call to look up.  Sometimes I am aware of the weariness children feel as they move along in school, busier all the time with homework and activities: soccer, basketball, baseball, gymnastics, art lessons and all the dancing lessons for Libby, the doctor and dentist appointments, Cub Scouts and piano lesson.

When I take Libby to gymnastics and dancing lessons, I stand at the glass watching her.  She in turn, watches me to make sure I am watching what she can do.  If I look away a moment, she is at the glass to get my attention back to her.  I visit her pre-school.  I take her on errands.  I am a prop instead of the center pole.  It seems to me that is the way it should be.  It is worth the price.

Recently, when Charlie was sick and unable to go to a basketball game with his family, I sat with him while he cried in the misery of his illness and in being left behind.  I want to commiserate when his parents are too busy.  I want to be a spark, an incentive.  A light.  Being a grandmother is an act of prayer against the terror of the world, a grounding of faith for this solitary road.   It is the times I am overwhelmed with the noise and confusion, and have to withdraw to my quiet house.  I have had 25 years on my own.  But I want to stand up and join the battle.  I want to ignite. To call to journey.  To tell them, see how the petals of the orange roses on your mother’s table are like flames.

My grandchildren are in a new world.  I have to stand back and watch, as maybe my paternal grandmother saw me and remained silent.  It is the separation that holds us together.   I think of the secret things that will die in my world as the world of my father’s mother died with her.  The other day I wanted to call the grandchildren to watch a storm, but they were watching a video when all the mystery of the natural world passed by.

I have taken Charlie to the lake with me.  He is wedged between siblings, and needs a larger space at times, a space for himself.   I have seen him interrupted so often by older brother and younger sister, he gets frustrated and breaks out in anger when trying to say something.

At the lake, I have a Jon boat, which is a small, brown fishing boat, though I don’t fish, with a battery operated motor.  We explore the end of the cove.  When the water is low, there is a rocky shelf we call Charlie’s Island.  Usually it belongs to the ducks.  We motor there, a trip of two minutes from my dock.  We get out of the boat and walk the entire length of Charlie’s Island, four or so yards.  We throw rocks in the water.  They are more like pebbles.  We find a walking stick.  We move rocks around with the walking stick.  We talk.  I listen to every word he says.

Even when Charlie’s Island is underwater, we know the rocky shelf is there.

In a spirit dream, where all things are possible, I sew the fragments of pebbles into a small island.  My needle penetrates the rocks.  My threads hold them together.

The role of the grandmother is a rocky shelf.



Diane Glancy is professor emeritus at Macalester College.  Her 2009 books are The Reason for Crows, SUNY Press, a novel of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk converted by the Jesuits, and Pushing the Bear, After the Trail of Tears, the University of Oklahoma Press, that follows her 1998 novel of the Cherokee Trail of Tears.  She was the Visiting Richard Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College in the winter semesters of 2008 and 2009.  This piece first appeared in Melusine's Fall 2009 issue.