Monday, December 10, 2012

Update/New Issue

Hi, all.  A little update.  In case you haven't been following on Facebook and Twitter, I should at least mention here that everything is a little behind schedule this year (even by my usual slightly-behind-schedule standards) due to the birth of my new baby girl in early September.  Wow, a baby takes a lot of one's time... who knew, huh?  But it's been a wonderful three months all the same.

I have a review or two I have been wanting to post here, but I think I will just include them in our upcoming Fall/Winter issue, since I hope to launch it by the end of the year.  That's the plan, anyway (insert note about new baby...)  The holidays can be hectic, but I hope to release a smaller-than-usual (let's call it "compact") issue by year's end.  Actually, I have been thinking about including reviews back in the issues again instead of here on the blog, so including them this time may be the beginning of a trend.  I may have some other plans for the blog, but I'll get to that once the issue is under way.  One thing at a time...

Hope your holidays are shaping up to be happy ones so far...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review: Karen An-hwei Lee's Phyla of Joy

Phyla of Joy
by Karen An-hwei Lee
Tupelo Press, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Karen An-hwei Lee's third collection, Phyla of Joy, shines with poems of refined craft and subtle linguistic play.  Love of language, love of the divine and reverence for the embodied human feminine each together and in turn animate the delicate interior and closely magnified exterior landscapes of these poems.

Many of the poems include in their titles the words "Prayer," "Dream," "Meditation" or "Psalm."  In Lee's work, a dream, a prayer and a mediation are cut from the same cloth.  To wander the world with eyes and heart open to nature and to the divine is to meditate, to dream and to pray.

Sometimes, as in "Meditation on a Cenote," an observation leads to a small but profound self-discovery:  "Memory is a cenote or limestone pool/ where the moon's underground eye// confesses fawn-colored vapor/ or sublimates violet irises in a jar —/ the self's watery other, shyly adrift// as the body:  a cenotaph, water monument/ for the self who is missing elsewhere,/ empirical matter in a field of spirit."

"Preservation of Rare Languages" is a lamentation on the inevitable loss of once vibrant and dynamic tongues around the the world,  which women strive to keep alive by intergenerational transmission.

In "Faith By Hearing," she writes of "studying books by the light of fireflies,/ by ch'uang, the ideogram for window,/ source of fires paired and housed/ passed from woman to woman,/ inherited only from mothers,/ phosphorescent hum."

In Horses of Famine, Horses of War," a blind woman acts as a sort of oracle for a language that is as incomprehensible as the nature of life itself:

A blind woman considered the inverted thinness of cigarette paper, almost
fish skin or petal.  A man is passing on and no one knows his name.  Paper
with a name on it floats out of her hand.  A book is a closed green circle.  Or
a woman whose first name sounds like sycamore-fig whispered.  Or a book
is a shore.  It encircles hungry fish consuming these words.

As with the lyric entreaties of the old poet-mystics, language for Lee is an imperfect but necessary means of approaching the divine.  The answer to such entreaties is sometimes silence, at other times grace, as in "Psalm I":  ".... Young stars are only/ hundreds of millions of years old.  God turns on the light in her body,/ a soft lamp with a paper shade a mother uses while nursing her infant."

Later, "Psalm III" references the double helix of DNA in a stream-of-consciousness mediation on human nature:  ".... Open/ your eyes.  Double strands of inheritence.  Chirality.  Our nucleotides/ are right-handed optical isomers.  What is the probability of this in/ nature.  Why carry this urn of ash, yesterday's blindness.  An orphan in/ exile sketches a rose under a full moon...."

In the series of poems entitled "Selenographia," a woman's aging body is compared to the moon's surface.  In "Selenographia III," the narrator asks, "Is this the body observed without conjecture/ dripping on the smooth rim of her personal sea/ with whispering clocks of lunar craters/ formed long ago when the world was// a thread of light in the beginning?"

However, earlier, in "Invocation," a young girl's mother affirms the speaker in rejecting the objectification of her body in language, insisting on the girl's own fluid self-definition of her embodiment:

Your body is neither flora, fauna, nor brass.
You are not a mountain range.  Our voices,

ringing as one, are not the boat-laden rivers.
We are neither rain nor sorrow.  Speak.  I am 

my mother's daughter, four summers old.
I am a strong girl, fourteen summers.

Lee's  sense of the feminine is one of self-aware presence, as she hints in the opening poem, "Yingri":  "Inside me is a bridge, or the beams of a house" — maybe a bridge to the ineffable divine.

The "garden boat" she goes on to mention, atop "an old ground swell," could refer to language, the vehicle of transport between the two.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Sandra Kohler's Improbable Music

Improbable Music
by Sandra Kohler
Word Press, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

The poems in Sandra Kohler's new collection Improbable Music seem to draw on decades of mindful observation, both of the daily dramas inherent in family life, rivalries, resentments, addictions, and the dramas that unfold on the world stage, conflicts, wars and the legacies that violence bestows to those who must endure it. In both these realms there is the specter of loss and the void it leaves.

The collection's first poems deal with family: intergenerational loss and estrangement and the tension between siblings who are now without the parents who once bonded them. Sisters spar with and comfort each other in turn and a brother wonders whether he can save another from years of steady, incremental self-destruction.

In the final stanza of the collection's opening poem, “From the Albums of Strangers,” Kohler writes: “The dead cannot be/ robbed, the living touched; home is the place/ you can't get from here, your body the naked/ fact that cannot be hidden. The loved traveler/ who returns cannot be embraced, only held/ at arms' length and gazed into, a mirror,/ impenetrable, remote, impossibly close.”

In “The Age of Departures,” the narrator observes: “Once we thought each farewell the end/ of a world. Each is; worlds end every day./ The unthinkable is the natural: we learn this/ as we did our first language, slowly,/ unconsciously, resisting, disbelieving.”

Personal mortality is confronted in “White”: “... For days now, a recurrent pulsing in/ my diaphragm nags, aches, sets me to imagining/ fatality; this morning I realize why it's familiar:/ a fetus' quickening. The omens of life and death/ are twins: the threat of death, the promise of life;/ the threat of life, the promise of death.”

In “Transitions,” Kohler lightens the tone by indulging in some nimble language play, while remaining philosophical:

The first day of hunting season: I come to
the gray window and bring my gray landscape
to bear on this one. Bear is not what they're hunting
but buck. The heart is at bay, the heart astray in the
deepest woods, lost. I am going to the river, I'll
walk till the day is found again. That will
happen when my eyes permit it.

Later in the poem, she simply states, “I pick up my gun, my life.”

The poems in the collection's second section are centered around the appearance of a heron, dubbed Heraclitus, at the same river (but is it the same heron?) The Heraclitus poems are leaner and more impressionistic than the bulk of those in the collection, but with Kohler, it's often the meatier poems that pack more punch.

In those grouped together in the third section, “Writing the Wound,” the personal and political converge in moments of urgency. 
In a poem about the outbreak of war in Bosnia, Kohler muses: “We are only what we can bear to resent./ Does any of us star in anything other/ than the dark dream of the soul, its/ betrayal, its secret history of irrevocable loss...”

In a later poem she observes, “Rain and sleep and bombs. Yesterday we bombed Iraq./ Blotches of cloud over hills, to the north vanishing into/ fog, to the south, thickening to slate. A small gray-haired/ woman walks up the path as she does every morning./ Wind rises in the bare twigs of the mulberry...”
In “Heraclitus in Eastern Europe,” Kohler describes a grim sort of “human nature preserve”:

Our century's mapped in the forests,
rivers of Eastern Europe: rail lines stitched like
a wound leading to the Polish camps, mines
studding Bosnian wetlands, unmarked bones
beneath Balkan soil. It's our nature preserved
here: wars and their aftermath embedded in
the landscape, imploding at a touch, a step.

In “Borderlands,” she gazes unblinkingly at the full horror of war, the personal devastation that is forced on the uninvolved, a mother from a nonpolitical family who “never threw a stone.”

…the head of my son
was on one of the greenhouses...
four hundred meters away,
the head of my son. And I
kissed it,....I saw a hand
in one of the trees, and
I kissed the fingers.”

Kohler ends “Reading the Hebrew Scriptures” with “... None of our models of what life/ can be mirrors its intricate living machinery,/ answers its raw cry.”

The poems in the final section return to the realm of the personal. 
In “September Song,” the tone is somber: “... The garden's// become a scrim, a facade, something essential lost: we// stay in the garden but Eden walks out, leaving it....”

The collection takes its title from lines in “Maybe Sibelius”: “In the dream we are dancing,/ while making love, to improbable music, maybe/ Sibelius....”

The narrator has absentmindedly put words to this scrap of dream-music, the Beatles' “I've got to get you into my life.” She's unsure what the words signify. She bickers with her husband. He says she's obsessed with the garden.

The poem ends: “The rain/ is a sudden burst, deluge. You are what I have/ to get into my life. You are what I have. What/ if, hurtling through these storms, we forget to/ touch, to make the gesture that will heal us?”

In each of these poems, there is a chance of healing, of connection, a question that is raised like “the interrogative curve” that Heraclitus makes “in the scratched geometry of reeds...” Sometimes the chance is embraced.

These are poems that look deeply into the heart of matters and often emerge with not answers but solace in what can at least be shared.

“September Song” closes: “Pour me a small cup// of the wine we were drinking the night you first realized/ my laughter would be the last sound that warmed you,// the night I saw lights flicker at the end of my vision,/ and knew loving you was the mirage I'd subsist on.”

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Review: Jenna Le's Six Rivers

Six Rivers
by Jenna Le
NYQ Books, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

In Jenna Le's accomplished debut collection Six Rivers, the poet draws inspiration from the bodies of water she has known – from memory, from her mother's reminiscences, and from the collective imagination.

Exhibiting a rare natural ease with demanding forms ranging from the familiar sonnet and villanelle to the lesser known French triolet and Japanese haibun, Le imbues even her free verse poems with a certain formal sensibility. Nothing in her style is haphazard, yet the poems' narrative candor and lyric intensity keeps them fresh and vibrant and occasionally searing in their brutal honesty and self-deprecating humor.

The narrative trajectory of the collection can be read as a sort of bildungsroman told from the perspective of a second-generation American who achieved the proverbial dream her parents aspired to, for themselves and for her, at a young enough age to feel the limits of its promise. In "Ada Lovelace," we hear the tale of a young woman gifted in the pure science of mathematics who could not entirely elude the vestiges of poetry lurking in her genome, the legacy of an absent father once larger than life and subsequently repressed by a pact between mother and daughter that took the form of linear equations and geometric proofs.

The poem ends with lines addressed by a friend of her father's to young Ada on meeting her at a party: " 'Young lady,' he mused,/ "your mouth is exactly like Lord Byron's.' "

The collection begins beside the Perfume River of Vietnam, the narrator's ancestral home, where in the opening poem we learn that her mother once lived in a "brick house overrun by chickens."

The first river of the narrator's own childhood is the Upper Mississippi which flows through her native city of Minneapolis. In "Trick," she employs a simple but potent analogy to tell the familiar American story of an immigrant couple's attempt at assimilation, with its attendant longing and persistent alienation that is subtly transmitted to their American-born child: "America, you're/ the Halloween costume/ my immigrant father/ rented and never returned." The poem continues, "Dressed up in you,/ my father seduced/ my starry-eyed mother/ behind a tall hedge.// But now the costumier/ is demanding you back./ He calls our house daily,/ ringing the phone off its hook."

The next section, set on Boston's Charles River, begins with the poem "Remonstrance" that sets the tone for the sensual poems that follow with "Here in Massachusetts, brine scents the sky/ in a way that masks the small individual/ odor of your sex."

The section set on the Hudson River continues in this sensual mode. These lines from "Three Short Poems on a Common Theme" are pitch-perfect in the subtlety of their eroticism:

I couldn't sleep a wink all night: my brain agitated its solitude
like a washing machine/

filled with copies
of your immaculate white shirt."

Knockout lines are the exception here, though, as the collection isn't riddled with extractable gems that outshine their context. The punch in these largely narrative poems is in their skillful construction and their delicate unfolding. The surprises they yield are subtle but satisfying.

In the section entitled "The Aorta," Le draws on her medical background for inspiration, and in a poem about Claribel Cone, one of the first American women to attend medical school, she quotes Henri Matisse, of whom Ms. Cone was a patron: "Matisse described his art/ in this way once: 'It starts/ as flirtation, but it ends// as rape; it ravishes me."

Looking beneath the provocative phrasing, this quote seems to apply as well to the literary artist. Is Le thinking of the revision process, in which the roles of poem and poet, subject and object, are often reversed, and the poet in the end serves the poem?

In “Ada Lovelace,” the narrator speaks of her math tutor: “He seized up geometric concepts as though they were cold-blooded eels,/ sliced off their heads, and proceeded/ to dissect them with sexless fervor.”
In poems like “Art Lessons,” where “if there are no straightedges,” love, art and violence are again mingled: “... My dear// if I'm ever reprieved from hanging, we shall/ be lovers. But if I'm ever reprieved from love,// we shall be hangmen, and your silken voice/ the rope.”

The collection's final section, entitled "The River Styx," includes a "Hymn to Aphrodite," which closes with:

Teach me to stop trying to mix
shyness and love,
two substances that are as averse to mixing as
oil and tears.

In these bold yet delicately crafted poems, Le's unique voice and formal technical prowess present the substantial promise of an emerging poet with much to offer.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Our Spring/Summer Issue is Live

Check out our latest issue, 4.1, which has just launched, at last.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Nonfiction by Liane Kupferberg Carter: Florid Feelings

Mr. Silverman wasn’t as handsome as the dreamy Mr. Steinfink who taught American History. No matter. I loved him. Fiercely. Fervently. Ardently. As only a moody and intense fourteen year old can worship a man of 25. It was 1968, when many draft-age men became teachers in order to avoid being sent to Vietnam. All our junior high school teachers were young, virile, and catnip to teenage girls.

Ira Silverman taught ninth grade English, and looked the professorial part: horn rimmed glasses, blazers with leather elbow patches. He was sarcastic and sensitive, a seductive combination. I would linger after class, waiting for him to notice that we were kindred souls. But Celia Schwartz, a flushed girl with googly green eyes, was always hanging around him too.

“Poetry is about compression,” he told us. “Learning to see is a discipline. Open your senses and drink the world in.”

Celia showed up the next morning with a pile of poems she’d written, quietly but effectively muscling me aside. Not to be outdone, I decided to pen poetry too.

Every afternoon that fall and winter, as Dusk Descended (as I would no doubt have written it then), I would wrench up my bedroom window and kneel in front of the hissing radiator, lowering its hinged lid to use its warm surface as my desk. I would press my nose to the rusted storm window, and suck in a cold sliver of metallic air. Feverishly I wrote, recording every passing sensation, as the sky turned cold magenta blue or fiery peach, and cars whooshed by below, their headlight beams sweeping the walls. I reveled in a voluptuous melancholy, closing out the sounds of my father’s tired tread passing my door, and my mother’s increasingly irritated calls to come set the table. When I wrote, the world fell away.

“I’m going to be a poet when I grow up,” I told my mother.

“That’s lovely, dear,” she said. “And how are you going to make a living?”

Comments like that made me furious. She didn’t understand. But I was sure Mr. Silverman did. Our world of poetry was private. Sacred. Mr. Silverman understood me. Sophisticated and sardonic, he was the grown up world that lay ahead.

Nearly every morning I would shyly hand him a new sheaf of poems I’d stayed up late to type on an old Olympia manual typewriter. He would pepper the onionskin pages with succinct comments: “Show don’t tell.” “Too obvious.” “Too emotional.” “Not enough.” “Too much.” And, thrillingly: “Very good, almost excellent.”

All that year, while I giggled with girlfriends, passed notes in study hall and tried to act worldly when we whispered about sex, I filled page after diary page with such overwrought outbursts as “How much longer can I endure this pain? It is shattering the frail wreck of my sensitive soul.”

In class one morning, as Mr. Silverman explained poetic license, some students passed around a photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s newly released album cover. I glanced at it, then stared. Oh my God, John and Yoko were naked. I had never seen a naked man. John Lennon had pubic hair? I looked up at Mr. Silverman with revulsion. Did he look like that, under his suit? I felt my face blaze.

“Man, I just don’t get it,” David Duffy was insisting to Mr. Silverman. “What does a poetic license look like?”

“I just told you, poetic license isn’t an object,” Mr. Silverman said, exasperated. “It’s a concept. It’s the writer’s freedom to break the conventional rules of language.”

“But where do you get it?” David insisted. God, he was so dense. Mr. Silverman looked at me, and rolled his eyes.

“At the Department of Motor Vehicles,” he said.

Day by day I handed him piles of poems, signing my name in lower case letters. I poured out my passion. The florid feelings simply flowed. “Were I to cry my longing to the cool wind and leave myself behind!” I scrawled. “Ah how heavy it is to be – how lonely this night!”

Breathlessly I brought him my yearbook at the end of the school term. I longed for a sign. Something that finally acknowledged and settled the bond between us. He wrote, “Without any writing on it/a piece of paper can be held/ any way you like/and it will be bright/ and pure/Empty your mind of the scribblings of darkness/ and live./Love Lee Love.”

I pored and puzzled over it for days, not sure if I was gratified or insulted. Scribblings? Darkness? Was he saying I was in some metaphoric dark place? That my poems were merely a teen’s overheated outpourings? Was he urging me to stop writing about an imagined life and start living it? But what of that last line? Was he secretly telling me to love him, or to leave him alone?

My mother gave me permission to invite Mr. Silverman to our family’s junior high graduation celebration. I pictured him standing on the front step of my parents’ house, and shivered with delicious anticipation. “Ira,” I kept thinking. “At last I’ll call him Ira.” He would finally see the woman in me. I would confess my love. He would confess his. We would kiss. There would be breathless words. And then…

That night I waited. Then I telephoned his house several times, letting the phone ring and ring. All through dinner, I watched the door of the restaurant, hoping he would appear. He never did.

He never called.

I never saw him again.

Liane Kupferberg Carter's work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Babble, Parents, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, McCall’s, Errant Parent, and Brevity.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review: Joannie Stangeland's Into the Rumored Spring

Into the Rumored Spring
by Joannie Stangeland
Ravenna Press, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Joannie Stangeland's Into the Rumored Spring was dedicated to and inspired by the author's close friend, a breast cancer survivor, although I believe the fine craft and broad scope of the poems it contains will speak to almost any reader who has struggled, in matters both profound and mundane, and survived.  However, it's difficult to imagine a more authentic gift from one author to another (the friend, we learn in these pages, is also a writer) than honest, thoughtful poems like these.

They not only testify to the empathy a loyal friend can offer, but, in addition to their fine craftsmanship, they are filled with moments of unexpected beauty and flashes of unsentimental insight.

The collection opens with a poem of despair, as the protagonist is caught in the "cruel silk" of cancer's "Web of Days."

Recovery is excruciatingly slow.  In "The Hours of Waking," "... the day becomes more ordinary,/ a gauntlet..."

Stangeland writes in "A Crow Means Everything":

When the murder makes its own weather,
a wheeling dusk, that flurry
blocks what sun will show.
If there is one way to fly,
the crows will find another. 

Hope is elusive.  In "A Dream of Sound," "She breathes the sky,// listens for another story,/ the residue of last night's dream./ Wind shivers the smallest leaves."

In "More Than the Sum," there is a glimpse of acceptance:  "If a part of herself is missing,/ it is no longer a part of herself."

In "Tender, Then Bright," "What is no longer green is becoming green./ Next she will see the new leaves/ of the willowsso tender, so bright."

Interspersed throughout the collection are brief poems, each entitled "Intermezzo," in which the protagonist's husband and daughters bring home news and mementos from her old life and from the outside world she has been shut in from during long weeks and months of illness.  Her adolescent daughters are often described as "blooming."

Other poems describe dreams of returning to Venice, a rower's paradise, filled with stirring, almost taunting descriptions of the city's sensual delights.  The protagonist is an avid rower.

In the collection's final poem, set in Spring, she is finally ready to go back on the water:

The hull skims across the lake.
The sun is in her hair.

Leaves emerge, soft as moths,
shiver in the wind.

Spring streams around her.
She is blooming.

A moving labor of love, a wonderful tribute, these poems provide a window into the slow, day-by-day struggle against an insidious disease by refusing to shirk its starker aspects and by offering hope without platitudes.

In "When It Is Blue," Stangeland writes:

Her new body, built now for water
sleek, streamlined

a seal or a porpoise
(think of dolphins around the bow

as a schooner races along the coast
and the sails are full.) 

*Note from the author:  The author friend for whom the poems were written is doing well and approaching her five-year mark.  All author proceeds will be donated to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review: Marcia Arrieta's triskelion, tiger month, tangram, thyme

triskelion, tiger month, tangram, thyme
by Marcia Arrieta
Otoliths, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

triskelion, tiger month, tangram, thyme, Marcia Arrieta's first full-length poetry collection, opens with an epigraph from Jacques Lacan, "the unconscious is structured like a language."  Arrieta's poems seem to be structured in the way a language of the unconscious might be.  Like dreams, they merely hint at underlying realities, making no attempt to corner them outright.  Her lines are brief and her sentences are briefer, many composed of just one word.  One of the longest in the collection is found in the poem "learning to see," stating simply that "we must continue to believe in the magical."

Arrieta's poems have a spiritual component, not in a dogmatically religious sense but rather following in an Eastern tradition which found echoes in the West with Blake, Rilke and later the Zen-influenced Beat poets, now somewhat out of fashion in this increasingly materialistic new century.  Impervious to current trends, Arrieta's approach suggests she still views the poet's task as that of the mystic, to observe, if not for the purpose of intellectual comprehension, then at least of a cerebral processing of awareness and an experiential sort of understanding.

Her poems make no conclusions or value judgments, no pat statements, only observations, notes from the field.  They compile abstract objects into a montage of hints and clues that read much like half-remembered dreams.

At times the mystery of this terse, abstract style may confound the reader to the extent that it feels arbitrary and deliberately hermetic, in the way of a challengingly simplistic modern art piece or inscrutable Zen koan.  Not every line rewards and enlightens with repeated readings, but many do.  As Arrieta counsels in "Impossible," "binocular a feather./ pay attention."

In addition to Eastern philosophers, Western psychoanalysts (Lacan, Jung) and artists such as photographer Joseph Sudek and sculptor/architect Isamu Noguchi, Arrieta draws inspiration from modern physics, in particular Einstein's theory of relativity.  There are also several recurring motifs from nature, one being the "bear at the window," perhaps representing the wild, the unknowable, the dangerous.

In "the mysteries," Arrieta writes:

faraway in the land of imaginary all is calm.  we learn of symbols.
symbol the man.  symbol the woman.  all in the name of meaning.
all in the name of understanding.   the mountain in the distance.

We read there an allusion to Lacan's theory of the symbolic but also to the enlightened master, to Einstein the formidable genius, and even to the bear at the window, each represented by the distant mountain.

There is also a call to engagement with this world in all its mystery, both to observe it and to dive right in.  In the collection's first poem, "Almost Real," Arrieta writes, "read the sand.  swim in./ travel the sequence of numbers./ study the wave theory of light."

"in search of fireflies" ends with a sort of metaphysical math problem:

a gingko leaf is found
in a book of psychology.
equate the sunflower.

The section titles of this collection are often poems in themselves.  One is a simple semi-colon.  The final one is titled, "A Circle," and is followed by a brief poem:

imaginary lives.
invisible mountains.
galileo's ink-wash drawing of the moon.
nothing is isolated.
water.  rock.  flower.
fields.  woods.
trace the path.

The theme of unity emerges as, not ironically, the unifying force in this bold collection which feels equally comfortable with its experimental veneer and the timeless project at its heart.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Flash Fiction Contest Cancelled

Apologies for another lengthy hiatus between reviews.  A new one will be coming by next weekend. 

Meanwhile, I need to make a reluctant but necessary announcement about the flash fiction contest, which was scheduled to close by the 15th of this month.  To be perfectly straightforward, we just haven't received enough entries to award the prize of this self-funding contest.  I know a lot of you are like me and sometimes wait until the last minute on these things, but in the case of the poetry contests we held over the last two years, we had a good stack of entries by this point, and based on that comparison, we just can't be assured we're going to end up with enough to hold a fair, competitive contest this year.

So we're going to have to pull the plug on this one.  All entrants' reading fees will be returned by PayPal within the next few business days, and again, my apologies. 

But for those who like contests, don't worry; we haven't abandoned them entirely.  We still plan to hold one next year, one you all just might be interested in, so check out our next two issues to learn what we've got in mind.  Our Spring/Summer issue is almost filled and will be launching in June, and as always, we're accepting art, poetry and flash fiction submissions on a rolling basis year-round. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: Margaret Bashaar's Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel

Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel  
by Margaret Bashaar
Blood Pudding Press, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Margaret Bashaar's second chapbook, Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel, is an unforgettable ride through a landscape that has frozen in time one particular summer, seen through the eyes of two young women, Mary and Claire, and the man or men who inhabited this space with them at a time when their lives were altered.  The space in question is a haunted hotel in a "dead coal mining town" in which the only attractions are seedy bars, cemeteries, junkyards and abandoned train stations.  It's Bashaar's intensely original, erotic lyricism that reanimates the denizens of this haunted summer and makes us care about them.

The chapbook, from Blood Pudding Press, is an object of art visually as well.  Mine was bound with soft purple ribbon to match the fleshy-purple marbling of its pages.  It's always fun to open a chapbook from this press to see what flutters out:  in this case, a delicate blue heart and a sexy, creepy little booklet.  

"Sexy" and/or "creepy" can describe a lot of the poems here, though many are also tinged with notes of shame or wistfulness at the memory of a certain kind of loss.  Others affirm the strength of a survivor who has absorbed the power of the once-powerful entities she has eluded or defeated.

In "The Girl Who Lived at the Hotel," Bashaar writes of Claire, "When she tries to remember a name, the feeling/ of sun on her neck, her throat is suddenly open./ Water spills out of her mouth and it is the remembering/ that loosens her joints, makes flowers bloom in her palms."

Mary, "The Girl Who Kept Secrets," is as hermetic and self-determined as Claire is spontaneous and vulnerable:

She gets a hold on everyone she meets,
fingers gentle hooks, folds up tiny boxes,
whispers into all of them the secrets she can't keep.
She ties them up, stacks them to the ceiling in her closet.
She's six deep by now.
She holds the answers to questions under her tongue
before she breathes them into boxes,
before she learns how to forget them entirely.

In "The Unmaking," we are introduced to the mysterious figure of Claire's lover, the demon hunter, who "... wraps around her wrists and he pulls her along,/ he pulls her along and her feet barely touch the ground./ They go up the hill, up over the sidewalk,/ the stones,/ up to the water tower, up to the cemetery in its shadow/ and he leads her between the headstones and it is dark and it is cold."

In "The Leaving of It," Claire begins to slough off the influence of the haunting, viewing the hotel now from a more distant vantage:  

She is half way home from where she balled her fists and prayed
for a garden three years ago, but she was something else then, 
a linen thread, an unlit candle.  Her lover told her she was in his walls,
that she was a part of him he could not carve out and she did not believe him.
She is still not certain if he handed her an apple or a peach,
if she's been tossed out into the ocean like a caught fish
or if she is still on a boat somewhere, gasping,
but she has gasped so long she no longer remembers
what it is like to breathe.

But in the next poem, "Claire Visits the Old Hotel," she is drawn back to the place:  "... She could never separate/ these dark rooms from the summer/ and summer went to hell/ with its honey wine and monkey breeding."

It's Mary who makes a clean break with the hotel in the poem that follows, "Baleen."

... She laid the road out in
front of her and drove and drove until she came to an ocean that gnawed the
land with foamy white teeth and she waded out into the surf with the cat in his
crate in her arms, lifted him up over her head as the waves rolled over her, and
when she was shoulder-deep she dropped the cat into the water and he was, in
and instant, transformed into Eden's whale, fur sucked into his mouth for baleen
and Mary startled only for an instant.  She leaned against his bulk.

She pushed him out to sea.

The cycle's longest poem, "Meditation on Ichthyosaurus at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, PA," leaves the setting of the hauntings and their aftermath and speaks to Mary/Claire's growing sense of universal awareness, but perhaps there is an allusion to the demon hunter here as well when Mary/Claire addresses the ancient marine reptile:  "I have eaten you in every lifetime and yes,/ you have devoured me and now/ I stand here and we are both bone and we/ are each monsters the other could not quite imagine."

In the poem that follows, "Claire writes a letter to the demon hunter upon learning about the God Dimension," Claire seems to make peace with the situation that "There is no shaman,/ no road woman,/ no man reincarnated/ 14 times with hands/ dry as old paper,/ no surgeon,/ no vow that can root out/ the sliver of the hotel's wall/ I carry under my skin./ My heart has grown around it./ I think of you/ when I realize this."

The poems in this chapbook are variously sensual and introspective, mysterious and candid, vaguely lurid at times, yet always captivating.  Like Bashaar's heroines, her readers will find it difficult not to return again to the haunting landscape she creates in these poems and try to understand just what happened there and why they can't seem to forget it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: Marilyn McCabe's Rugged Means of Grace

Rugged Means of Grace by Marilyn McCabe
Finishing Line Press
, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Early on in her powerful first solo collection, Rugged Means of Grace, Marilyn McCabe establishes a direct voice with the capacity to address the unthinkable instant of sudden loss.

She writes in "If Beauty Is Just the Beginning of Terror":

where we stop short and are gone:
like the way the wind came
one day after Dave died
in a flurry of bike and deer
and clouds built themselves
an empire and the trees
bowed down and roofs fled,
barns collapsed,
sewers spewed
and all was gray and green,
then gone too blue
and the ghastly sun
like an operating room lamp
on the glowing insides of the patient,
the place where no light should go.

Quiet.  Take the soft heart
from the body streaked
blue, white, red,
cup it like a bird in your mortal hand,
but it can't fly, as time does.

Time has the power to move on, the speaker implies, but the heart is in time's thrall and must wait.

At the close of "Marie," about Curie's loss of her husband Pierre, the narrator states:  "I am held by this luckless substance./ The luminosity cannot be seen./ It is the end of everything./ Tell me how to live."

In the next poem, dedicated to Mme. Curie, the scientist is asked, "What drives you, woman, to melt/ and weigh, melt and weigh,/ distill yourself (a glorious poison)?"

The poem that follows, "Burning Bush," begins by addressing the mystery of life on earth, once the exclusive realm of religion:  "The Genome Project guy thinks God works/ in deoxyribonucleic acid/ His wonder to behold."

It closes, "How we parse this profane world,/ find smaller, smaller/ sacraments,// holy fire,/ spiral of smoke/ from which we can't avert our eyes."

"Holyland" continues the contemporary speaker's search for meaning in a landscape which carries the heavy weight of history but is subject also to the indifference of a chaotic universe:

Be lost.  No place more perfect:  dry sea of tides,
vortices and waver of the ancient dead
home here on holiday, old rivalries and piques.
Stars on which to navigate shift against the bloody night,
some shooting swift as shots.  Everywhere I see
myself and its opposite in mirrors made bleary
with time and a strange silvering that comes of air
and water's persistent search.

The varied natural subjects of "Bestiary" allow the more playful side of McCabe's voice to emerge.  "Lettuce" laments:  "Such sturdy substance/ at my source, one seed,/ but risen rosette, now/ this labile, sea-/ like self, I'm silly,/ frilled as a lizard.  Unsolid,/ I'm salad.  What the hell's/ happened to my head?"

In this brief collection, pilgrimages for meaning are interspersed with more mundane anecdotes, like a trip to the dentist's office in "Open Wide."

Throughout, McCabe relates in direct and detailed, sensory-rich language a succession of earthbound, sensual encounters with the profound.  The title comes from the closing line of "Lac du Saint Sacrament":  "... This/ is my body, visible sign of invisible/ reality.  You dissolve me:/ earth's impulsive intentions,/ its inadvertent and slow evolving violence./ You are a rugged means of grace.

Each encounter permits a little more illumination, even if no conclusions are reached beyond recognition of the artist-seeker's role of transient observer.  "Signs of Passerines" begins:  "I try not to think.  All the things I've left behind./ My name on a white page, clack of my words clattering down./ The window:  taking it apart.  The center."