Light Activity Involved: THE QUIETING, edited by Michelle Tudor

Reviewed by Cody Stetzel

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(Platypus Press, 2016)

The Quieting is an anthology of ten poems published by Platypus Press. Each poem meditates on the meaning of softness and light. But what are we to make of an anthology of only ten total poems that falls under twenty pages? I find the limited approach to the theme refreshing. Easily, one could compose this same anthology with dozens, hundreds of authors. However, this micro-anthology is well worth the read.

This is not an exhaustive work that leaves you breathless. Instead, I find myself thinking deeply about specific pieces. Two works that stood out to me are “Two birds—One stone” by S.A. Khanum and “At Night” by Anis Mohjani. Both of these are written in voices that echo for a long time. The concision of the anthology enabled me to pay more attention to poems that halt within the flow (to use a water metaphor, a theme heavily-laden within the anthology). A poem, for example, like Terrence Abrahams’ “Just between us,” becomes memorable when it is paired with the noisy contrast of “At Night”: “Take every dream, crack its shell, / watch the yolk run down your fingers, now // take a hunting rifle, run outside—.” Continue reading

Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home, a play by J.A. Moad, II

Reviewed by Lynn Houston

Runs until October 15th, 2017 at The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd Street, New York

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In the middle of Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, the character Marlow faces a narrative crisis when he finds it difficult to reconcile the information about Jim’s life he has gathered from a variety of sources. He is sure of one thing, however, regarding Jim’s travels, “that for each of us, going home must be like going to render an account.” J.A. Moad, in his richly layered play Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home, solves the narrative confusion at the heart of Conrad’s classic by providing us with three linked heroes that each tell their own stories in different contexts. The result involves the same trope of “homecoming as accounting” referenced by Marlow in Lord Jim, which Moad employs with great skill to deliver a message about the bitter loss of ideals among working-class men.

Outside Paducah is being billed as an exploration of the effects of PTSD on returning soldiers, and it certainly accomplishes this objective with a coherent artistic vision comprised of cultural sensitivity and historical grounding. The play traces an arc of U.S. military service from the Civil War, to World War II, through Vietnam, and Iraq. The secondary story lines reinforce the main themes in the lives of the main characters: in Act II “Cairo,” the father begging for a loan recalls an incident at a school near his son’s—a boy who opened fire on a prayer circle, killing three girls. Similarly, the images projected during the play contribute to its historical complexity—a newspaper headline flashes on the wall: “JFK shot by sniper.” The play broadens a discussion of PTSD to the larger issue of gun culture and toxic masculinity.
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Interview with Randy Brown

Interviewer: Stephen Sossaman

51qqpGCbf1L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Randy Brown is a poet, journalist, and editor, and a leading figure in the veterans’ writing movement. He is the author of the award-winning poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku (Middle West Press, 2015); editor of a 2016 book-length collection of citizen-soldier journalism; poetry editor of the on-line literary journal As You Were; and a blogger on military experience, culture, and writing. In 2011, Brown was embedded as a civilian journalist with the 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division, the Iowa National Guard unit with which he served before retiring in 2010.

Stephen Sossaman: Every war is different, and so too is the generation that fights it and writes about it. From your readings in contemporary war poetry, what about Afghanistan and Iraq — and military personnel today—seems different?

Randy Brown: I’d like to think that there’s a growing appreciation for different voices, for different perspectives on the battlefield. A variety of voices now seems more easily available to us. Is that a function of how poetry is published and propagated today? Or answer to a growing call for narrative diversity? Either way, war poetry today isn’t as easily triaged into simple categories. It’s no longer just soldiers or aviators, enemies abroad or families waiting by the fires at home. Our war chorus has grown more complicated, more cacophonous.

SS:  So how much of this diversity do you think is due to cultural change, and how much to the vast opportunities of online publishing, ebooks, and self-publishing?

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Buddha vs. Bonobo, by Brendan Walsh

review by Kristen Leigh

 

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(Sutra Press, 2017)

“…how far from where stories shaped/ their mouths and not/ the other way around.”

It is in the above line from Brendan Walsh’s latest collection, Buddha vs. Bonobo (Sutra Press), that I read an inquiry of human communication quintessential to the author’s body of work. Walsh’s commitment to fusing feeling with intellect and presenting the idea within the container of a poem is more than just pleasure reading—although there is much pleasure in the lyricism of his language and imagery. Walsh’s previous work asserts him as a minimalist of material goods, yet nearly hedonistic in his consumption of experiences, culture, language, travel, love, friendship. He communicates a drive, ravenous, for a common shared experience. We are talking about the work of a man who feels it all—who chooses to feel it all—and hopes you might join him in this lettered search for the origin of human compassion. It might be surprising to find it resting in hearts and on haunches in, at least on these recent pages, bonobo communities.

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Stateside, by Jehanne Dubrow

Review by Lynn Marie Houston

419tVkReOWL._SX358_BO1,204,203,200_A holiday this past week went largely unacknowledged on my social media feeds. Wednesday, June 14th is known as “flag day.” In fact, the whole week of June 14th to the 18th is called “flag week.” It’s a holiday to commemorate the adoption of the official design of the U.S. flag by the Second Continental Congress in 1777. We’ve since added a few more stars to represent the total number of states in our nation, but it’s still the basic design we use today.

The passing of flag day with little fanfare makes me think of news articles I’ve seen over the last couple of years that attempt to remind the American people that we are still regularly sending troops to ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Just last month, one of my college English students had to turn in his final portfolio early because he was deploying to Afghanistan with his National Guard unit. And yet, like flag day, these deployments seem to go widely unacknowledged. Some advocates have taken to calling the war in Afghanistan “Forgotistan” in order to underscore the lack of public knowledge and support for the ongoing sacrifices of our military personnel.

But it’s not just our military personnel who are continuing to make sacrifices without headlines; their families do, too. In fact, the spouses, parents, and children of our deployed service members have been long accustomed to making sacrifices without much public acknowledgement. I know a little bit about the latter kind of suffering, having supported the man I was dating through his deployment last year. In November, the Heartland Review Press will be releasing Unguarded, my prize-winning collection of poem-letters written to him during our time apart. In honor of flag week and of Forgotistan, I’d like to draw attention to the poems of Jehanne Dubrow, whose 2010 collection Stateside rewrote the Penelope myth for modern times, capturing in poetry the quintessential 21st-Century experience of the woman who waits for her lover while he is at war.

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Pax Americana, by Kurt Baumeister

Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel

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(Stalking Horse Press, 2017)

When I started the process of reviewing this book, my own small world was not exactly on my mind. More than anything, I eagerly opened my copy to see the workings of the indie press industry. How is Small Press America (there might be a pun buried in here) doing in 2017? There are, of course, a plethora of bookish offerings, but this particular one landed on my radar.

The funny thing is that my life inadvertently encroached. As I began reading this political satire, my husband and I finished another weirdly timed thing: a TV binge of “The West Wing” (a show that ended in 2006)—having ventured into it accidentally, without a thought about the current political climate. We just wanted to see it. Additionally, I was listening to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on audio for a future review with Snotty Literati, another dystopian-political-kind-of-book. And, well, we can’t exactly ignore the world into which this book was born, for better or for worse: the, um, “Trump Era.” Lastly, I’m a practicing—albeit unorthodox, rakishly anti-Trump, mildly castigated by more than a few—Christian. (Poor Baumeister! Should I even touch his decidedly anti-Christian political prose?) These things worked on me as I read this novel.

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Autumn’s Yard, by Anne Averyt

Reviewed by Sarah W. Bartlett

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Finishing Line, 2016

From the first poem, “Autumn’s Yard” explores themes both enduring and endearing. In this debut collection, Averyt pays close attention to the vagaries of nature – from the external world of Nature we associate with trees, flowers and birds; to the inner world of nature as personal character and spirit; to the Big Questions concerning the nature of life, love, mortality, eternity.

The first thing the reader learns is that Averyt loves to move ordinary language around, catching both the unexpected and the doubly-intended meanings in a single pass. This she achieves through word order, reference and line breaks as much with as the sound of words themselves.

For instance, in the opening poem she writes “Here the doves in coo/mourn . . .” where the pun on here/hear immediately alerts the reader to a needed second look at the stanza. Then of course the mourning dove, rather than cooing, is “in coo,” both a reversal of the anticipated order of the phrase and an added level of meaning. Continue reading

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel

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Random House, 2017

I love George Saunders, and I’ll read anything he writes.

My review, in summary: he’s brilliant, a genius even—but Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel which follows a stellar short story career, is more like an amazing exercise to be appreciated and discussed, from somewhere below; however, it failed to do what I personally like in a novel, which is for someone else’s story–besides mine!—to absorb me. That’s a lot to ask, but I often ask it. This explains my love of big, bulky stories like The Nix or The Goldfinch. Saunders offers fascinating ideas, brilliant collaging, and great sentences—but I wasn’t overcome, and I wanted to be. Did I step outside of myself and into the life of another, much like the Bardo “ghosts” step into the lives of the living? Am I closer to the human experience?

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Nobody’s Jackknife, by Ellen McGrath Smith

1st Place Winner for Poetry in the Wordwrite Book Awards 2016

Reviewed by Lynn Houston

 

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(West End Press)

Ellen McGrath Smith’s book of poetry, Nobody’s Jacknife, is a brilliantly executed poetry-memoir. A hybrid text in many sections, it intertwines prose poetry with verse (and excerpts from other works) in order to document, in the first section, coming-of-age moments in which a child becomes aware that she has an identity outside of her family unit, and as she becomes aware of the gendered lens through which she is seen by the rest of the world.

What flag can a teenage girl fly that isn’t already translucent,
x-rayed by the sun, its diurnal laws, golden gavels, ramrod
pillars of heat and becoming?. . .

Section two (and beyond) follows this female speaker into adulthood, where the lessons of her childhood play out in her romantic relationships and her own experiences of motherhood.

One of the major themes of this collection is the practice of yoga, how the speaker’s mother teaches her to do various positions at a young age. The speaker’s memories of and reflections on life are rooted in those yoga poses. And I mean “rooted”: this collection is about how to bloom in a hostile landscape after you’ve tried, and failed (as a child), to find wings.

As a poetry memoir, this is a book of relationship poems. But these are not recollections from an insulated middle-class lifestyle, the kind often associated with yoga. In a few of Smith’s poem, she talks very frankly about troubled economics, even the high price that practitioners pay for the services of a Yogi. Instead, the practice of yoga becomes a way of narrating the body’s role in its own existence, its grounding in space—literally, in one poem, folding a map like a body.

My east surrenders to my west: sun is setting,
houses, faces, facts forgotten;
the day dissolves into skin-creases.
Chin against the shin—long razor-bone;
breasts on kneecap—rainclouds, stones.

Surrender to the time the body measures
and the time that measured breath refers to
far beyond the body. My north
and my south have never known

each other’s worth; I fold the map.

Baseball is another major theme in the collection that helps draw out the politics of gender and race that undergird Smith’s work—the speaker is a precocious young woman with a conflicted relationship with her father; she documents her initial exposures to sexism and racism. Referring to a baseball game when Puerto Rican outfielder Roberto Clemente was playing, Smith’s speaker narrates:

K
is what you put down for a strikeout. One time,
some fans draped a banner at the stadium
consisting of three Ks. It gave me chills when I first saw it,
but all it meant was they were rooting for the pitcher
to retire a whole inning’s worth of batters.

The conditions of her childhood are a through-line that establish the tone of her sexual encounters into adulthood, set against the race riots of the late ‘60s. The gender dynamics of her childhood—her understanding of her father and her time with her brothers and childhood friends—set her up for troubled relationships later on, but at the same time they provide her with a nearly idyllic beginning—her innocence, the amount of time she spends in nature, observing it. The practice of yoga is the dividing line between the child and the adult, a separation bridged by kinds of knowing that involve the body, ones where she is more in control of her physical experience than in other activities.

Ultimately, Nobody’s Jacknife affirms that sitting still is an act of self-love and empowerment, that stillness is necessary for one to take root and bloom.

 

Barrel Children, by Rayon Lennon

Review by Lynn Houston

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(Main Street Rag Publishing, 2015)

With Ishion Hutchinson’s recent win of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, it is perhaps time to have a larger discussion about the work of poets who are writing about their relationships to Jamaica. One such poet local to the New Haven area is Rayon Lennon, whose work has won a Rattle contest, among many other accolades. Tess Taylor, from the NBCC board, writes about how Hutchinson crafts “poetry [that] compresses witness” and that “concentrate fervor and anger.” Rayon Lennon’s collection Barrel Children has a little of both the poetry of witness and anger, but it also captures those moments when, despite economic hardships spawned by colonialism, we discover or create connections—sometimes unconventional ones—with other people.

The premise of Lennon’s collection is the experience growing up as one of the barrel children, like many children in Jamaica, whose fathers send items back home to them from America, where they have gone to be able to support their wives and children with better wages, but where they also often start new families are never seen again. The items they send back to Jamaica are shipped in barrels. Continue reading