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.