Poetry Review: The Language of Little Girls, by Kate Falvey

A Review by Dante Di Stefano

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Poetry: The Language of Little Girls, by Kate Falvey

Review by Dante Di Stefano

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The Language of Little Girls

Kate Falvey

David Robert Books, 2016 ($19.00)

Kate Falvey has published two poetry chapbooks, What the Sea Washes Up (Dancing Girl Press) and Morning Constitutional in Sunhat and Bolero (Green Fuse Poetic Arts). She is associate professor of English at New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York, where she teaches creative writing and literature. City Tech/CUNY supports the annual literary journal, 2 Bridges Review, for which she is editor-in-chief.  She is also an associate editor for the N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center’s the Bellevue Literary Review. She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from N.Y.U.

The Stealthy Dream of a Constant Hand

Kate Falvey’s new collection of poetry, The Language of Little Girls, reads as a compendium of unforgettable female voices; the book abounds with sketches of compelling, thoughtful, unruly, questioning, and complex women and girls. Falvey introduces her readers to grammar school angels contemplating the divine, schoolmarms, nuns, catholic schoolgirls, piano teachers, mothers, daughters, ghosts, literary critics, cosmopolitans, Little Red Riding Hood, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, an indomitable young woman named Cora, and tomboys who decorate the blushing rubber of their doll babies with blood from their own scraped knees and shins. This diverse cast of characters shares an irrepressible vitality and an unquenchable curiosity that Falvey expertly marshals into the elemental language of her poetry. Precise detail muscles Falvey’s lines, pierced through, as they are, with egret and cygnet, birch and alder, iris and calendula, brush and bracken, bufflehead and common goldeneye. Falvey’s poems whisper avowal everywhere in their own lovingly windswept vocabularies.

Not only does The Language of Little Girls whisper avowal in all directions, but it also affirms the creative and imaginative power of the feminine. The girls and women in these poems are makers: poets, musicians, craftswomen, artists in the kaleidoscopic overlay of urban and pastoral, of heaven and of earth, of the ordinary and of the sublime. These girls and women “can see into the very insides of / angels” and “know God’s sigh is the / voice of all the world.” However, Falvey’s poems also articulate more immediate concerns; the poem, “Incidental,” for example, begins:

The world creases sometimes
less like the brittle page of an old paperback
(one with a moon on the cover — and the soft
eyes of a girl peeking over a mess of creepers riddling
through a neat fringe of boxwood)
and more like a bed sheet busy with violets and snow drops
slept on fitfully and dragged into a stealthy dream of
a constant hand, smoothing, rumpling, smoothing.

In these lines, the creasing of the world—an existential problem—relates more to the domestic sphere than to the literary. However, the literary overlaps with the domestic. The crease in an old paperback implies an engagement with a text, an old intimacy, a giving over of the self to the dream of pulp and ink. Similarly, the folds in a bedsheet, upon which are written a chronicle of bodily restlessness and insomnia, might be coopted “into a stealthy dream of a constant hand,” endlessly smoothing and rumpling their surface, like the work of a poet who has entered the infinite dream of restorative utterance. The Language of Little Girls pleasantly uncovers the world’s creases, so that they might be smoothed, rumpled, and smoothed again, by Kate Falvey’s constant hand.

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Poetry Review: Break the Habit, by Tara Betts

A Review by Dante Di Stefano

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Poetry: Breaking the Habit, by Tara Betts

Review by Dante Di Stefano

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Break the Habit

Tara Betts

Trio House Press ($16.00)

Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue. Tara holds an MFA from New England College and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Her writing has appeared in American Poetry Review, POETRY, Essence, NYLON, Octavia’s Brood, and The Break Beat Poets. Tara teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago.

This Wild Whisper Runs Inside Me

Tara Betts’s second collection of poetry, Break the Habit, charts the dissolution of the poet’s marriage. Betts chronicles her relationship with her ex-husband from the initial sweetness of first love through the vicissitudes of married life to the heartbreak of divorce and beyond. The arc of this failed marriage serves as a metaphor for various forms of uncoupling from the bondage of routine; in poem after poem, Betts argues for a sloughing off of the quotidian, for a liberation of the imagination, for an unbridling of the heart and mind. As Betts notes in “The Paterson Falls & Hinchliffe”: “There’s history I cannot write when / decaying, forgotten places cling to the present.” In this poem, the ghosts of Satchel Paige and Minnie Minoso writhe through the derelict remains of the famous Negro League stadium against the backdrop of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. The failed epic of Williams’s Paterson serves as a counterpoint to the failed epic of Betts’s doomed romance. Here, as everywhere else in Break the Habit, Betts grounds her work in an aesthetic of radical departure.

Whether writing about the loss of a lover, the death of a loved one, or a spider spinning its web above her front doorstep, Betts constantly seeks to affirm the “symmetry in the body of the living.” Her poetry insists upon the renewal implied in decay, the rebirth hidden inside demise, the beginning whittled from an ending. As Betts writes in the final two stanzas of “Go”:

I cannot deny what rocked and kept me,
what once made me feel safe, gone now
—ashes dust, burned, singed, blown to
a language that wind and soil must know.

This wild whisper runs inside me, and I
must answer it or the rustling of skin shall
molt what is left. I will never, I will not
allow myself to live half a life, so I must go.

Throughout Break the Habit, Betts celebrates the people and things that have rocked and kept her: her mother and the rest of her family, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, her beloved Chicago and the streets of Kankakee, the music of Cassandra Wilson, Bonnie Raitt, Bon Iver, and Public Enemy, the prose of Borges, the company of friends. Betts sagely invokes the gentle collisions and the bittersweet partings that constitute a full and fragrant life. The poems in Break the Habit display a pleasingly complicated humanity: intelligent, feisty, romantic, fragile, nostalgic, defiant, broken, unflagging, committed to living in and through the word in the way one might live forever in one note unfolding greenly from John Coltrane’s horn.  

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An Interview with Matthew Burnside

An Interview with Matthew Burnside, by Patrick Font

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An Interview with Matthew Burnside

by Patrick Font

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Postludes

by Matthew Burnside

Kernpunkt Press ($14.99)

Matthew Burnside’s work has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing, DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Kill Author, PANK, and Pear Noir! among others. He is the author of several chapbooks and numerous digital works. He currently teaches at Wesleyan University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives online here

Matthew Burnside’s upcoming Postludes is filled with moments where characters face walls of grief, yet keep reading and you’ll find flashes of hilarity—one of my favorite sentences in the book is “We weren’t players on the stage of life and Shakespeare’s an asshole for saying that.”

If you’re looking for a book with energy on the page, look no further—his writing is explosive, kaleidoscopic, existing in its own dimension. On the surface, Postludes is organized as a collection of stories linked thematically by exploring the idea of what occurs after one experiences loss, and its language sporadically bends into surreal, poetic realms that propel you on adventures you’re unlikely to anticipate. The book is short, a mere one hundred and thirty pages, with page-long, experimental stories that flicker—god, I hate the word experimental—followed by longer, narrative driven stories. Hollow comparisons made by literary critics and readers alike often do nothing for me, and I am hesitant to compare anyone to Burnside as he embarks on a trajectory all his own, but I admit I was vaguely reminded of Ben Marcus’ The Age of Wire and String while reading Postludes. Similar to Marcus, Burnside has chiseled each sentence into a memorable moment that pops even with the smallest of stories in this collection. The characters he has created yearn to connect with others, and, as a reader, the narrator’s yearning felt genuine, empathetic, never without purpose. At times the narrator finds himself in parts of Texas—sometimes rural, sometimes suburban—yet the lack of geographical description in many of the stories suggests the narrator unable to pinpoint himself within the context of reality.

Nowhere on the cover will you find the words “a collection” or “a novel” stamped below the title, and, really, does that even matter? Let’s just say it’s a book, a book maybe not for every reader out there, but a book that fulfilled my desire to read something out of the ordinary. I’m pleased to have been given the opportunity to interview Matthew Burnside, and, although I’m not one to make a sales pitch, the only other thing you need to know is that you can pre-order it here.

PF: I noticed some of the stories take place in parts of Texas, and you even mentioned Dr. Pepper in one of them—that’s how you know someone’s from Texas. Do you have any favorite authors from Texas?

MB: I learned a lot from Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories. I’m also a big fan of Larry McMurtry and Lonesome Dove. I actually just watched the miniseries adaptation a few weeks ago and it still holds up surprisingly well. You can’t go wrong with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones barking sass back and forth at each other. Duvall’s Gus McCrae, especially, is such a lively and spirited character. You really feel his loss when Tommy Lee Jones’ character takes over, the tone changes completely. It’s funny how much energy a good character can swing into your fictional world, and how much they hold sway over the tonal weather.

PF: Any particular reason you decided not to call this book a collection of stories or a novel? Typically, publishers stamp “a novel” or “a collection” on the cover. The way I see it, categorization can often be a silly thing, but do you find this book difficult to categorize?

MB: It is a collection of something. I’m not sure what exactly. I’m fine with that vagueness, that looseness of categorization. Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have been. I used to worry myself with what to call the things I wrote. I fixated on genre. When I was about to apply for MFA programs, I almost went with poetry but ultimately decided on fiction because it proved more challenging to me. But at the time, it felt like a LIFE-ALTERING DECISION, as if I were deciding what I would be stuck writing the rest of my life, in the way some college students think choosing a major will restrict them to one career for eternity. Now that I’m older, I don’t think it matters much from the perspective of creating what label ultimately gets slapped on a thing in the end. I think it only really matters to the people in charge of selling the stuff. If anything, I think it can be creatively limiting to worry so much about what to call something. Just let the thing be the thing, you know? Sometimes an in-between, formal Frankenstein or manic fluid concoction is the only way to do a feeling, thought, or theme the nuanced justice it deserves.

PF: Character names are often represented by a letter—such as M, S, L, etc. The narrator’s hesitance to mention these characters by their full name seems to be a coping mechanism for the loss and pain he faces—or at least that’s my inference—but I’m interested in hearing from you on your choice to use letters and what effect they have on the narrator.

MB: That’s certainly a part of it (the coping mechanism thing). If you’ve ever read CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which is a book about the author wrestling with the grief of his wife, you know he does a similar thing. He can only refer to her as a letter, because saying her name would be too much. It would somehow make her real again, not just the idea of her. Bring her memory flooding back, like so many moths swarming a lone bulb in a kingdom of darkness, or ringing some beautiful and terrible bell. There’s tremendous power in uttering a name or writing it down.

The other part of it is that I find a lot of the traditional trappings of narrative (like plot, setting, even character description) don’t interest me. Obviously some pieces are more traditional than others, but a lot of the time I find getting caught up with names is a waste of time when what I’m more interested in is capturing a feeling via the architecture of language.

So, yeah, it’s a little of both.

PF: I sense that the narrator is the same character in most of the stories, but there is a layer of ambiguity which makes me wonder whether or not that’s true. For instance, the narrator’s voice in “Cosmonauts/Nots/Knots,” “Revival,” and “Passengers”—by the way, I just love the story “Passengers”—all sound alike, but in other stories it’s difficult to tell. Is this ambiguity something you were going for when writing these stories?

MB: I think I know as the author which voice belongs to each piece, but even I’m not certain. Ambiguity can be effective if there’s a strong enough emotional or thematic logic to warrant it, but it can also be equally frustrating to readers who have to know how all the pieces connect. If all the voices swirling around in Postludes are puzzle pieces, then they’re puzzle pieces intentionally shaped to link up with more than one other piece, because the ifness of life is an important theme of the book, perhaps the most important of all, right up there with the necessity of empathy as a tool for our collective survival. But even if some of the same characters make more than one appearance, they’re still totally different characters because we’re all totally different people from one moment to the next. For instance, if “Passengers” sounds like it was written by a very young, nihilistic author with a very limited concept of how to write a story, that’s because it was. It was the first story I ever wrote, and it has the raw edges to show it. If “Oblivion’s Fugue” sounds like it was written by an older, slightly more mature but definitely more humanistic writer, that’s because it was, and it stands – I hope – as a weighty, more expansive and communal counterpoint to Passenger’s quite narrow ego and somewhat selfish conception of suffering.

PF: In the “Sunken Dreamers’ Almanac,” the prose becomes poetic: “Making art of his scars he swirls scab frescos. Full crash expressionist, dangerous as life without a helmet. All year he is curb-splendor, collision-crafting, bone-grafting: jilted juggernaut in jackknife leather jacket armor.” Is genre bending something you’re interested in as a writer and reader? Do you also write poetry?

MB: Yes and yes. I think as human beings, if we could ever just learn to be OK with uncertainty, irresolution, the discomfort of “abnormal” half-formed things, we’d be much happier. As is it, though, our attempt to make perfect sense of everything dooms us to a lifetime of always approaching satisfaction but never quite attaining it.

Poetry is one of my favorite things. The science of expressing the inexpressible through music: what could be more necessary?

PF: I came across so many striking metaphors, such as “…a crushed hat with a feather gliding out of the top that would catch the kitchen light and shiver silvery, like a fish leaping out of water tickled by the sun.” I have a feeling much of this language came natural to you, but, based on personal experience, hours of revision are necessary for even the smallest paragraphs. Can you talk about your revision process, especially once you began arranging the stories in this book?

MB: I’m the slowest writer in the world. Really. I spent most of my time in my MFA in an empty basement, sitting on the floor writing a single sentence over and over. And on my manuscripts, I spent an awful lot of time reading “This is grammatically incorrect – change this” and ignoring it because I liked the way a sentence sounded, musically, or it sounded the way I thought a character might feel, if that makes any sense.

You’ve read the book so you already know I write mostly in fragments. So, even though the book took me years to write it’s still a really short book, relative to other books. And most of the sentences aren’t even complex sentences. As a rule, the shorter the thing the longer it’ll take me to write, because I want everything boiled down to pure feeling—the grisly concentrate sapped straight and clean from the heart root.

Technically speaking, though, the revision (and ordering) process amounts to a never-ending game of Tetris in which every conceivable position is exhausted until one feels more true than all the others.

PF: OK—I have to ask this question—why do you thank Steve Buscemi at the end of the book?

MB: My infatuation with The Buscemi may have begun as ironical love, but over the years it has bloomed full force into a sincere admiration. He’s a quiet artist, a man who does his job at the peak of his craft. He doesn’t bother with the trappings of Hollywood all that much. He has no use for hipness. He is the epitome of integrity. He once told someone he wouldn’t fix his teeth to be an actor, because acting isn’t about teeth, it’s about acting. After 9/11 he reported as a volunteer firefighter and did his duty. There are no photographs or interviews about this because he declined them. He is the kind of artist I’d like to be one day, but I’m not nearly there yet. If I ever confirm he’s read my book, I’ll probably retire immediately and ascend to heaven, where I will meet him because in my heaven all the angels have the face of Steve Buscemi.

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Fiction Review: In the Not Quite Dark, by Dana Johnson

A Review by Katrina Prow

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Fiction Review: In the Not Quite Dark, by Dana Johnson

by Katrina Prow

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In the Not Quite Dark

by Dana Johnson

Counterpoint ($15.95)

Dana Johnson is the author of Break Any Woman Down, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Born and raised in and around Los Angeles, California, she is an associate professor of English at the University of Southern California.

I met Dana Johnson last March at AWP, minutes before she spoke as one of my people for Women Write Los Angeles, a panel I co-designed and co-moderated with my friend Tatyana Branham. Johnson was our wild card. We knew the other women on our panel both professionally and personally (Hey Lisa! Hi HMV!), but Johnson was a last-minute add-on when another writer canceled. Both Tatyana and I did what we could to research, reading parts of her first story collection, Break Any Woman Down (2001), and novel, Elsewhere, California (2012), but the truth is we had no idea what to expect, writing discussion questions like, Will Dana like this? creating commemorative bookmarks thinking, Will Dana find this dumb? A couple weeks before the convention, Johnson’s story “She Deserves Everything She Gets” appeared in The Paris Review (http://www.theparisreview.org/back-issues/216). In my small West Texas apartment, I read the first line of her story aloud for Tatyana, “We are all sitting around a fire pit, talking about how not to get raped,” and I thought, Oh shit. This is going to be good.

Spoiler Alert: The panel was good—great, even—and I am sorry if you missed it. Helena Maria Viramontes took us to church when talking about the importance of street names, Lisa Glatt reminded us to celebrate the lesser-known places in LA county—wide and far-reaching and distinct in each way, and Dana Johnson talked about her Los Angeles, specifically Downtown, an area rich with history, diversity, and transformation. Johnson’s latest book of stories delivers place and people with total accuracy and heart. In the Not Quite Dark is a stand out collection proving Dana Johnson’s resiliency as a trailblazer for Los Angeles literature, writers of color, and women.

The collection starts strong with the story “Rogues,” a cautionary tale about being black in Southern California (read: America). Kenny, living in Palm Desert, opens the story with the dialogue, “There’s too many niggas moving into the neighborhood,” while his brother J.J., a graduate student from UCLA, explains “why it [is] uncool for a man of color to complain about too many black people in the neighborhood.” The main premise of the story is that Kenny has been robbed. He has called the police “who took their little fingerprints and whatnot,” but he has devised a better plan to “catch one of them Negroes tearing up [his] house.” The story unfolds as both brothers become infuriated with each other’s differences, with each of their individual identities as black men, one brother’s version not good enough for the other: Kenny drives a Hummer and blasts 50 Cent while J.J. drives an old Toyota without a/c, J.J. watches Oprah and shops at Ralph’s even though Kenny pushes Stater Brothers for cheap prices, J.J. is a steadfast supporter of Obama while Kenny is voting for Hillary stating, “Money pure and simple.”

Structurally, readers see the end of “Rogues” before it comes. This is not a comment on Johnson’s writing, but rather a comment on being awake in 2016, perhaps just being awake in general. By the second half of the story, after a few days with his brother in Moreno Valley, J.J. settles into a different identity, enjoying his temporary job of keeping watch for the robbers at night while drinking margaritas in the pool during the day to escape the heat. Of course, J.J. figures out the mystery of the robbers, a young neighborhood kid with a pillowcase from the same house Kenny had suspected, but by the time J.J. calls the cops, he is drunk, disoriented after a day in sun, shirtless and barefoot, “looking like an African. Like a Negro just rubbed Crisco all over himself and dared the sun.” When an officer appears and interrogates a flustered J.J., “Answer the question, young man,” readers know the unwritten ending though the narrative stops here. The ending for this story, Johnson’s goal, seems crystal clear, even though the story’s antagonist is somewhat ambiguous. Who are the rogues? Kenny, a stereotypical thug, taking the law into his own hands? J.J. who is more judgmental than his brother, expecting every black person to be a certain way? The robbers, punk kids who take from their neighbors, both physically and metaphorically? The police, whose lack of help got the brothers into this predicament in the first place? Johnson does not have to ask any of these questions specifically in her story, but nevertheless, readers are left to contemplate their answers.

In “No Blaming the Harvard Boys,” the complexity of internal and external race relations are also present, but Johnson shifts the focus in this story to also include a perspective on the myriad of expectations for women. This story is one of my favorites, possibly because I, too, am a woman who has gone to graduate school for writing (twice), and I, too, understand the unspeakable power of a boy’s club, that sinking feeling that you will never be enough because you are woman, or the wrong kind of woman, or from California, which isn’t literary enough. The plot for this story is rather simple, a writing program party, but the way in which Johnson retells the narrator’s participation in this party is at once haunting, real, and gut wrenching. In the beginning of the story, the narrator has her sights on the Harvard boys, two party crashers that seem too eloquent, too worldly, for this kind of house party: “They cared about African American studies, the Harlem Renaissance, understood the importance of Run DMC, N.W.A., Public Enemy,” whereas the narrator refers to herself as “Claire Huxtable.” After a failed flirtation with both of the Harvard boys, our narrator finds herself with an older man called the Irishman, who lures her into his lap and later his hotel room. At the climax of the story there is a series of power shifts. The narrator is silenced for being inadequate by the Harvard boys, and then the Harvard boys are silenced by the Irishman because they are outsiders, and the Irishman is silenced by the party host because it is her house, though the Irishman fights back because he is older, he is a white man, saying “I’m in charge of this.” This meaning: this place, this party, this woman.

The last paragraph of the story shows a switch from first person to second person, the narrator directly addressing the audience. First, she focuses on the party host who has broken “a wine bottle on the mantle” as a party’s over battle cry. The narrator asks, “what kind of woman does this,” though she is another kind of woman in an old man’s lap. Abruptly, the story shifts and Johnson writes: “Even if you’re a genius with lots of money, even if you have class, wearing slick leather shoes in the snow like you don’t care what anybody thinks, it turns out you still feel like you have to answer to somebody. I bet you: You’ve seen too many movies, and you believe what those movies tell you about yourself. You think they’re mirrors.” I thought about this story for a long time after I finished it; I felt unsettled the way a great story shifts the ground beneath one’s feet. I had to put down the book. I finished the rest of it on another day.

Ultimately in Dana Johnson’s writing there is a necessity of place: Downtown, tall buildings, noise, smog, no parking. It’s busy, a place for vacation, or a place to avoid. It’s also a place rich in juxtaposition: you either love LA or hate it, East or West, LA proper or the valley, from here or a transplant, celebrity or everyone else. Los Angeles is both the setting and centrifugal force in many Johnson’s stories, but especially in “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” “Because That’s Just Easier,” “Buildings Talk,” and “The Story of Biddy Mason,” the latter the subject of a brilliant interview between Johnson and Nastashia Deon at Los Angeles Review of Books (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/gets-tell-stories/#!) about Biddy’s rich, yet lost story in Los Angeles history as the founder of the city’s first black church. The setting in these stories is not overwrought with sweeping descriptions of the skyline or the environment, but rather revealed in Johnson’s use of aptly-placed nouns, showcasing LA living better than any adjective could. We see references to LA College, Bukowski, Cole’s French Dips, Pacific Electric Lofts, The Grove, LAX, Raymond Chandler, Skid Row, Hotel Cecil, streets like Sixth, Grand, Main, Temple, Spring, the freeways 110, 101, 105.

In the titular story, “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” Johnson writes about the aftermath of Elisa Lam’s death on Downtown residents, and main character Dean thinks, “Even before the girl in the water tower, [he] has been haunted.” The idea of Lam’s ghost is a peculiar one, not just because of her story: “that eerie security video he Googled, the last time anyone saw her alive, pushing the elevator buttons, lighting them all up, not going up and not going down, and, then, stepping out of the elevator into forever,” but also because of what it means to be a ghost in Los Angeles, not always a description of the physically dead. Dean remembers the Los Angeles he originally moved to: “The West was still wild and he had felt like a pioneer. It was rough, heroin needles, human feces, prostitution rough. No covered wagon packed with his belongings, but he had had an empty building that was almost entirely his and one hundred other people’s.” This LA is a ghost too, like the LA from 1905 and “the waves of immigrants who made their way […] they were Polish, Sri Lanken, Italian, and Mexican.” Just as LA’s history fades, so does Downtown, “it had changed on so many others before [Dean], people who had lived there for years before he had even heard of Downtown and so now he feels like an ass for resenting Starbucks—the Starbucks he goes to every day, even with the occasional junkie nodding off at the table or shooting up in the bathroom.” And perhaps this is why “Now, in the Not Quite Dark” became the title of Johnson’s collection, because there is no better way to summarize Los Angeles’s perseverance than through its waves of change, through the people who have disappeared into its system, the poor, the sick, the othered, and while we may not always see them, we can feel them, we hear their echoes: “everywhere ghosts […] there is always someone who has come before you, someone who is going to come after.”

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Poetry Review: Waiting for the Dead to Speak, by Brian Fanelli

A Review by Dante Di Stefano

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Poetry: Waiting for the Dead to Speak, by Brian Fanelli

Review by Dante Di Stefano

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Waiting for the Dead to Speak

by Brian Fanelli

NYQ Books

Brian Fanelli is the author of the chapbook Front Man (Big Table Publishing) and the full-length poetry collections All That Remains (Unbound Content) andWaiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books). His poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Main Street Rag, [PANK], Louisiana Literature, and elsewhere. His poetry has also been featured on “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor. He has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Brian is a full-time faculty member at Lackawanna College.

Swing State

The world did not end on November 9, 2016. However, for some of us, even for those of us who saw a Trump victory as a distinct possibility, it certainly felt like it did. Brian Fanelli’s second full-length poetry collection, Waiting for the Dead to Speak, addresses many of the underlying class issues exposed in the recent presidential campaign. Fanelli’s poetry dramatizes the enthusiasms and struggles of a white working class childhood and of an adulthood wed to activism and to poetry.  Throughout the rolling hills of Lackawanna County dramatized in poem after poem, Bruce Springsteen blares out of car windows as Dollar Trees proliferate and young men learn the gospel of Bud Light and Monday Night Football. The Scranton, Pennsylvania of Waiting for the Dead to Speak, a place freighted with pasts and vanishings, could be anywhere in Middle America; Fanelli’s poetry mainlines anthracite and coal dust, caked in creosote and lye, in order to deliver a rustbelt bucolic in which empathy outflanks hate.

The twin cornerstones of Fanelli’s poetry are empathy and gentleness. The first poem of the collection, “For Jimmy, Who Bruised My Ribs and Busted My Nose,” gently demonstrates the empathetic vision that ennobles the whole of Fanelli’s work. The final two stanzas of this ode read:

This poem is for the bully who never cried,
who hid belt lashes from us, who ran from the sound
of his father’s battered Ford tracking him down,

the son whose hands tightened to fists like his father’s,
who uncurled his fingers to study my blood,
and then extended a hand to lift me up.

Here, as elsewhere in Waiting for the Dead to Speak, Fanelli moves through the bruised and the busted to a place where those in conflict are united in a gesture of uplift. Like his heroes, Philip Levine and Joe Strummer, Brian Fanelli knows what work is and he sings for all of those lost, unborn, and unmade in the ramshackle. The only swing state depicted in these poems is the movement away from complacency’s chubby scraped knuckles.

[mk_audio mp3_file=”https://arcadiapress.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Poem1.m4a” thumb=”https://arcadiapress.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Authorpic.jpg” audio_author=”Listening to Springsteen on I-81″][mk_audio mp3_file=”https://arcadiapress.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Poem2-2.m4a” thumb=”https://arcadiapress.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Brian-Fanelli.jpg” audio_author=”Facing Late Autumn”]
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Poetry Review: Reflections on the Dark Water by M.P. Jones

A Review by Dante Di Stefano

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Poetry Review: Reflections on the Dark Water, by M.P. Jones

by Dante Di Stefano

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Reflections on the Dark Water

by M.P. Jones

Solomon & George Publishers $13.00

Madison Jones is a Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Florida—where he works with the  TRACE journal and innovation initiative. He is editor-in-chief of Kudzu House Quarterly. Reflections on the Dark Water (Solomon & George) is his second poetry collection. Recent publications include co-editing Writing the Environment in Nineteenth-Century American Literature; an article forthcoming in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment; poetry forthcoming in Birmingham Poetry Journal, ISLE, and The Goose, and recently appearing in Canary, Tampa ReviewPainted Bride QuarterlyGreensboro Review, and elsewhere; book reviews in ISLE, Kenyon Review Online, The Journal, and elsewhere. Visit his website: ecopoiesis.com.

Catastrophes of Sunlight

In M.P. Jones’ second collection of poetry, Reflections on the Dark Water, the poet pursues the black currents and refracted joys of his own psyche through the lush rural landscapes of the Deep South. For Jones, the pastoral tradition itself becomes a scene in which he might untangle “the skeins/ of naked selves.”  Magnolia, kudzu, squabbling jaybirds, the stars over Alabama, and “the low pull of trainsong,” provide the backdrop against which Jones paints a portrait of the many selves contained within a single line of poetry. Through “catastrophes of sunlight on the bedspread,” the poet constructs entire genealogies of silence and, in so doing, he strives for an ecological mindfulness centered as much on love of others as on love of the earth.

Love of family, love of poetry, and love of human history intermingle throughout Reflections on the Dark Water; the collection reads as a ghostly palimpsest where Jones’ deceased brother might be read alongside James Wright, Li Po, Charles Wright, Emily Dickinson, Hayden Carruth, a slew of Roman emperors, and generations of Japanese poets. As Jones notes in the poem, “The Bicycle,” there is “no division/ between the deep taproots and the loam.” Each poem in Reflections breaks down arbitrary temporal and physical divisions; each moment, here, is every moment, an eternal recurrence of thrush, threshing floor, bone sutra, and crow shadow, presided over by the Native American trickster god, Coyote. Jones demonstrates this cyclonic phenomenology in the poem, “Morning Otology,” when he writes:

The neighbor passes again
                                      on the green mower.

                         Emperor Titus thought a gnat
had crawled in a nostril
            to pick his brain as punishment.

The loud hum of the John Deere shuttles the poem from neighborhood to imperial palace, through the ruins and the lacunae of antiquity, reminding us that to be human, whether rich or poor, whether provincial or cosmopolitan, whether ancient or postmodern, is to contend with the great final silence of the grave. M.P. Jones writes to affirm the amethyst in the bramble, the dark syllables of thunder, the nocturne of the empty field, the world behind the world, hidden in the wing of a heron alighting on the drainage lake of an industrial park.

 

Listen to Jones read his poems:

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Fiction Review: Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler

A Review by Katrina Prow

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Fiction Review: Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler

by Katrina Prow

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Sweetbitter

by Stephanie Danler

Knopf ($15.00)

Stephanie Danler is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School. Sweetbitter is her debut novel.

Stephanie Danler’s story is the stuff of great myths. I read about her luck one night during a time when, if I couldn’t sleep, I would Google: restaurant fiction, waitress novels, books about serving. The headline read: Waitress Is One of Many New Writers With Big Book Deals. An article in the New York Times. And her photo, which normally wouldn’t garner too much talk, yet the editor was smart to feature a large image before the type, so midnight readers could see her eyes—crystal blue—perfect hair, coy smile. Most writers are unremarkable. I had a feeling Danler made great tips. I clicked, Preorder.

I read that Times article over and over while waiting for the book to ship. Peter Gethers, senior vice president and editor-at-large for Penguin Random House, was a regular at an upscale restaurant in New York, where Danler, an MFA grad with a novel manuscript, was waiting and writing. The story is almost too saccharine to enjoy. Still, I was eager to read Sweetbitter. Writing restaurants, it seems, is sub-genre solely distinguished for chef memoirs, but the waitstaff, a lower echelon in restaurant hierarchy, rarely receive a point of view. Aside from Merritt Tierce’s 2014 novel Love Me Back and scenes of secondary characters serving our protagonists food and drink, the front of the house is tragically offstage in contemporary writing.

I devoured this book—fast—in a matter of four sleeps. It’s good, really good: Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is something delicious. It’s like that saying, The proof is in the pudding, only this time, instead of pudding we’re tasting crème brulee.

As an experienced server, I’m most invested in this first section of the book, titled Summer for the season our narrator Tess moves to New York City and starts working at an upscale restaurant in Union Square, a story not unlike the author’s. Tess is hired because she is a fifty-one percenter, which is restaurant speak for having personality, nerve. The other forty-nine percent is mechanics: “You know, just memorize the table numbers and the positions, stack plates up along your arm, know all the menu items and their ingredients… Know how to show up on time.” Danler is meticulous with the forty-nine percent, and readers learn about folding linens, wine varietals, steps of service, all the details of training down to hiding barmops and buying expensive nonslip work shoes before she’s awarded her stripes—a uniform. Tess screws up more than once as a backwaiter, whose duties include running food, bussing tables, making espresso, polishing glassware, and opening wine. It’s all too familiar and uncomfortable to read episodes of restaurant stress, but Danler makes it new by restructuring the scenes of chaos into centered paragraphs of stream-of-consciousness poems:

Table 43 is industry—Per Se?
If one more bitch cuts me off to ask for Chardonnay—
If one more person asks for steak sauce—
What the fuck?
Carson is in again—without the wife,
That’s twice this week.

Like a chorus, these poems give voice to a crazed cacophony of teamwork, which shifts into the restaurant’s omnipresence as character. Danler uses this technique to manipulate time, “all of service condensed, as if [Tess] only worked one night stretched out over the months.” These sections are bound to puzzle a reader not versed in restaurant culture, but there’s authenticity in the writer who uses unapologetic jargon, who orders, “Pick up!”

Summer ends when Tess is invited for a “shift drink” after one busy night. Her coworkers start in their own restaurant, finishing open bottles of wine and playing bar for each other while doing side work. They head to the local watering hole for last call, and then afterhours, and then more. Wide-eyed Tess asks, “Do you do this every night?”

Experienced readers already know the answer as Autumn begins, and Tess forms inevitable friendships with her coworkers, alcohol, cocaine. In the inherent debauchery, though, there’s a second narrative building: one about a beautifully cold bartender named Jake and the lead server Simone. Tess is obsessed with both of these characters, likely because they’ve reached an untouchable status in the restaurant, and while I understand both relationships, Tess’s awe with Simone is more complicated, and therefore, more rewarding. Simone is “Wine-Woman, a tree of knowledge, regulars demand to sit in her section,” the kind of woman who says, “Your self-awareness is lacking” as a means of backwaiter training. Simone works a server even when she is not clocked in, feeding Tess fancy wine, loaning her books about grapes, teaching her jazz, oysters, chanterelles—an exotic teacher to Tess’s student. However, the façade of Simone eventually unravels, and she, too, like Tess’s other coworkers, becomes painfully human—sad, even. Because readers and Tess receive the realization of Simone’s truth at once, it’s barbed and shocking and wonderful. Danler’s descriptions of Simone are spot-on, envious. Their fallout is unexpected and heartbreaking.

The third section of the novel, Winter, focuses on the evolution of Tess’s sexual relationship with Jake, which is predictable, only because Tess is so young (read: naïve) and Jake is a total fuckboy (read: bartender, tattoos, manbun). I won’t spend much time here because I have dated a Jake at every job, and so have you. The appeal is irresistible and obvious. Some of us read to learn, but there’s an exquisite delight in recognizing, Me too.

Perhaps the most resounding part of this novel, outside of restaurant specifics, is the writing of New York City as character, accurate with street names and businesses and real-life locations—the novel’s centrifugal force. Danler writes that Tess is “born” as she drives across the George Washington Bridge, and while I don’t relate to New York personally, I understand the buzz of living somewhere new for the first time. With all the obstacles at the restaurant, the love triangle between Jake and Simone, Tess’s only confidant becomes the city, and soon everything foreign transforms into the familiar like a kind of magic. After a sharp scene of too many drinks and not enough Jake, Danler writes:

The city was radiant and I felt untouchable. I experienced the boundlessness that ships cut from their moorings must feel. I experienced again that feeling of having money, paying the tolls, of being allowed to enter the race. Yes, I felt the freedom again, even if I couldn’t quite recapture the hope. I could have walked all night. All the times I’d been denied entrance, all the times I’d asked permission—but it was my city too.

In the end, Sweetbitter isn’t about New York specifically, or the restaurant, or even the love story. Tess ultimately settles into the most important thing: ownership of herself. And so we no longer have a novel about how to work, how to wait tables, the forty-nine percent, but rather, the fifty-one, “the tricky stuff,” put simply—how to be.

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Poetry Review: Hemming Flames, by Patricia Colleen Murphy

A Review by Dante Di Stefano

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Poetry Review: Hemming Flames,

by Patricia Colleen Murphy

by Dante Di Stefano 

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Hemming Flames

by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Utah State UP ($19.95)

Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, and American Poetry Review, and most recently in Black Warrior Review, North American Review, Smartish Pace, Burnside Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Hobart, decomP, Midway Journal, Armchair/Shotgun, and Natural Bridge. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.

Inventing a New Language for Fire

Patricia Colleen Murphy’s debut collection, Hemming Flames, dazzles and sears as it charts the wracked history of a family plagued by mental illness and addiction. With great nuance and empathy, Murphy resurrects the suicidal mother who lit herself on fire, the alcoholic father cursing and breaking dinner plates, the agoraphobic brother with an eating disorder that leads to crippling obesity, the crushing gravity of the family home, which is a frigate, a bridge for sale, a poker game, a firefly, a time warp, a time machine, a trap, a big sick lung. In lesser hands, the confessional mode that Murphy employs might come off as solipsistic and exploitative, but the poems in Hemming Flames alchemically transmute the base material of personal trauma; Patricia Colleen Murphy transforms the stuff of autobiography into the earned communion of poetry.

For Murphy, the earned communion of poetry thresholds itself between effusion and restraint. In her poem, “Good Morning, Mediocrity,” Murphy says: “…I’m stuck between the one who keeps it all/ and the one who gives it all away.” This is the dwelling place for poetry: the space between dispersal and recollection, the impulse that both gathers and discards. The poem, “Memory as Diary,” further articulates these competing impulses to affirm and to destroy. The poem reads, in full:

Because the body is illiterate, lacks
language any more complex than thirst;
and because the body came from another
body whose ultimate goal was to wean it;
and because the body saw a body burst
into flames on the bow of a boat;
and because the body watched its dog cross
the uncrossable street about to be stopped by
the unstoppable car; and because the body
went from soft & pink to rough & brown;
and because the body feels a stabbing, a
tingling, a dull ache, a numbness, a heat;
and because the body would tell you this
if it could, would say it hurts or I miss you.

“Memory as Diary” enacts the recursive strategies of the entire book, as the speaker seeks to find words for the throb that comes from being in a world where separation and loss are writ indelibly and indecipherably on our very bodies. In poem after poem, Patricia Colleen Murphy gives voice to a stabbing, a tingling, a dull ache, a numbness, a heat. She invents a new language for fire and this new language allows her to express anger and pain, desire and despair, regret and a wry hopefulness, despite it all. Her forte is not just the white space of her mother’s lunatic years, it is the restorative utterance of a daughter and a sister who has healed the torn cartilage and rebuilt the charred remains of her lost childhood. Hemming Flames is not merely a necessary book for anyone who has experienced mental illness and addiction in their family, it is a necessary book for anyone who cares about poetry.

To hear Murphy’s poetry and an in-depth interview, check out Audio Interview: Poet Patricia Colleen Murphy.

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