Poetry Review: My Zorba

November 24, 2009

My Zorba

By Danielle Pafunda

Published March 21, 2008

Bloof Books

80 pp.

ISBN 0-615-19593-8

Reviewed November 23, 2009

Some poets take language out for a long, leisurely lunch and a stroll. Danielle Pafunda drags language out of bed in the middle of the night and takes it on a desperate mission through the war-torn house of the body.

Mirrors explode and shattered glass rains down on the mostly female narrator of Pafunda’s book, “My Zorba,” as she fights with an imaginary, mostly male character named Zorba. “I could only think in small pieces!/I could not speak in first person! The copper wire/strung!/From my armpit, a personality exam, a pelvic diatribe” (In the Museum of Your Two Halves). Confusion, urgency, shape-shifting, and struggle maims every poem in “My Zorba,” producing language that is fragmented and mysterious, that jolts and halts like an ancient amusement park ride. It is as terrifying and difficult as it is beautiful; a drunk horror story covered in glitter.

This may not be true for every reader, but I couldn’t even start the book without thinking of Nikos Kazantzakis’ famous novel “Zorba the Greek.” In “Zorba the Greek,” the male character, Zorba, mysteriously appears and thrusts himself into the life of a young male character who, like Pafunda’s narrator, remains nameless. Kazantzakis’ Zorba teaches the writer how to be a man and how to enjoy the zest of life – a “zest” that primarily consists of bedding several women, who Zorba insists are all “something different, boss … something different. She’s not human!” A widower in Kazantzaki’s novel, who is thrust sexually by Zorba upon the narrator, is even stoned to death because of Zorba’s actions. However, it seems a trivial tragedy, necessary even, for the narrator to gain a full sense of his “manhood.”

In both Pafuda’s and Kazantzaki’s work, the Zorbas happily upstage the narrators. They can’t help themselves. They persistently impose themselves onto the narrators, determined to control his and her actions. And yet, while Kazantzaki’s work yields direction and “epiphany,” Pafunda destroys, cuts, and confuses in a search for “femininity.” If indeed Pafunda is making a reference to the bestseller, she’s created a dark lens to view it through.

She pulls the lens wider, too, focusing her sights on long-documented story of the male “rite of passage.” What has long been seen as a kind of eye clearing journey turns out to be a drug-induced stupor for the female in “My Zorba,” with female narrator fighting to regain authority over her own consciousness and reality. “I was so KO’d, so tanked, so regal, furtive, dormant, a champ./I was so full of vitamin mash and protein” (Building a Nest, the A-Z). Pafunda turns the “strong” and “powerful” journey of gender discovery on its head and twists its neck into a series of awe-inspiring, but obviously painful positions.

Despite all of these comparisons I’ve just made, I have to emphasize briefly that knowledge of “Zorba the Greek” is not necessary in any regard to getting something out of “My Zorba.” The poetry is first and foremost about sexuality: the rush, the horror, and the confusion it manifests in any young person, male or female.

As children often do, the narrator created Zorba when she was young as a source of protection against her own inexperience and insecurity. “He drew a drawbridge, she drew a gangplank He an awning/she an armory” (My Sea Legs). That protection comes with a price as Zorba emphasizes the domineering, hierarchal aspects of a parent figure, rather than the more equal qualities of a friendship. The narrator addresses Zorba as “My little mommydaddy” (Nee Providential) but it’s apparent that Zorba is no “nurturing” figure. In fact, after reading all the poems the book’s harmless opening quote from a Margaret Wise Brown children’s book is unbelievably unsettling:

“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

It’s as if Zorba is already trying to get the first word in, even before the narrator begins speaking her verse. Zorba looks directly at the reader and says, “She will never escape me.”

There are times, in poems throughout the book, that the narrator aggressively fights back. “Zorba asked me to read their cards…I would not read the card for frontage/I would not read the card for Christmas…Nor bind/her breasts with bandages, iodine” (Tribune). It seems, as the character senses the natural progressive nature of her individuality, that she should make attempts to protect and take control of her sexuality, “I protected my creature with a complicated rigging, I took twofold/the barb and twofold the batting…For shortage. I shorted the sheets/of the privates” (In the Iron Cassion).

And despite all of Zorba’s authoritative, male posturing, mostly articulated through words, Zorba’s gestures and descriptions in the verse sometimes undermines what she/he she claims to be. “She put pantyhose over her athletic shorts. And a skirt/over that” (A Quarter-Hour of Recess). Pafunda may be hinting that Zorba’s power is superficial, a power that lean heavily on the pills, sex force and brainwashing speeches fed to the narrator, rather than any real truth.

Perhaps these imaginary characters are creatures we battle in real life, as well. Maybe Pafunda suggests in these poems, with all the gender switching and the heavy struggle associated with “instructing” a young person about gender, that young men and women share more androgynous, indecipherable qualities between each other, contrary to what the assorted dominant, parent figures in their lives may tell them.

The book ends with a poem filled with one of most common images associated with femininity: birth. “Zorba asks me to deliver this speech. A birthing…I took extra care/in applying my makeup, affixing an eyelash…My eyes were ruddy with grief…I haven’t a coffee spoon, marmalade, a clue” (Sweets). The character ends the book by performing what is considered to be the greatest achievement of the female gender. We give birth to new life. But, in this instance, can we see “birth” as something new, or as an imposing act meant to perpetuate a violent cycle.

I don’t think, though, that “My Zorba” is just for women. Pafunda is an effortless daredevil when it comes to imagery and an eccentric butcher of the English language (if the cover art didn’t already hint at that) She has a chilling gift for story-telling and costumes that makes puts you right in the middle of a coked-out dance floor. Anyone will have a fabulous time trying to keep up with her.


Book Review: Democracy in Print

November 22, 2009

Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive Magazine, 1909-2009

Democracy_In_PrintEdited by Matthew Rothschild

Published May 1, 2009

University of Wisconsin Press

390 pp.

ISBN 0-299-23224-7

Reviewed November 22, 2009

Out of all the casualties the economic crisis has been wreaking on the world (your humble narrator’s well-paid publishing job among them) one of the most tragic has been the regular shuttering of newspapers and magazines. Print media has been in a bad position for the last few years with its base of readers and advertisers going to digital news, and newspapers from Seattle to Boston have shut their doors. Others have laid off staff, slashed their size and made the move to publish solely online – sad stories that don’t do much to reassure our descendants will remain well-educated.

But for all of these sad tales there are still a few inspiring moves out there, and fittingly one of the recent ones comes from The Progressive. In August, Editor-in-Chief Matthew Rothschild issued a personal appeal to all readers that the magazine needed $90,000 to keep publishing, saying that it was in more danger than it had been in the last 25 years. Readers responded by donating over $120,000 in two weeks, saving the publication Senator Robert La Follette founded as “a magazine of progress, social, intellectual, institutional.”

For the key examples of this tradition – and reasons why readers see The Progressive is worth defending – one need look no further than “Democracy in Print,” released to coincide with the magazine’s centennial. Collecting close to 200 essays, speeches, interviews and poems, the book is a keen collection of the left’s thoughts, as well as a valuable source for arguments that still remain relevant as of today.

Like most compilations of articles, this is definitely a book built for browsing rather than reading in one sitting, going to one particular issue for reflection or research. Wisely, “Democracy in Print” chooses not to split its content up chronologically but by issue, focused on several of the most hot-button issues of the last hundred years, ranging from the rights of women, African-Americans and gays, to serious reform for labor and environmental policies and an end to wars. Writers reflect the depth of the magazine’s contributors, with La Follette and his extended family, senators, union activists and media critics all expounding on their favorite topics.

The Progressive has always been a magazine with a mission – I see it as the polar opposite of the National Review, standing athwart the gates of history yelling ‘Go!’ – and unsurprisingly the content of the book rarely deviates from the far left: war is never the answer, equal rights for all, etc. It can’t boast variety, but what it can boast is undeniable passion. Its history and content boasts a willingness to fight for ideals, calling out our highest officials and even fighting a prior restraint judgment from the U.S. government to publish an article on the hydrogen bomb.

Several of the essays also come across as shockingly relevant to our current political climate, and (tragically) are far more articulate than the existing discourse. Witness Harold Ickes, FDR’s secretary of the interior, speaking on how the wealthiest families and companies led America into a “peacetime catastrophe,” it’s clear that the circumstances that put us in the recession are not new ones. Or La Follette, railing against how workingmen who lose limbs are paid per appendage – an argument that would probably come in handy as the Senate debates healthcare.

“Democracy” is not entirely speech-based however, as the book also explores the history of The Progressive‘s cultural ties by reprinting a selection of interviews with musicians and authors. Each of the figures being interviewed waxes on a particular topic tied to their work, and each one is uniquely enjoyable: Kurt Vonnegut on how politics has devolved into entertainment, Allen Ginsberg on sex and authority, Frank Zappa on the decline of art to name a few. The interviews give a sense of not just being experts, but also defenders of traditions that seem to be dying out.

The recent campaign for funds waged by The Progressive proves that defending its beliefs is never going to be easy, but the content they have generated proves that they have the energy and brainpower to keep going. “Democracy in Print” is a solid collection of liberal journalism and eloquent discourse on its most important fields, and a valuable tool in the arsenal of anyone writing about the issues of the time – ours, last decade’s or last century’s.

Link of Literacy: TV Girl

November 19, 2009

In the last few years I’ve grown more and more appreciative of television – helped chiefly by its maturation as a storytelling platform. Witness “The Wire,” best viewed as a five-part novel on a city’s life and conflicts, told with such character depth and intertwined storylines it could give some of the great Russians a run for their money. Or “Deadwood,” which creates a community amongst disjointed individuals who realize they don’t fit in anywhere else; or “Breaking Bad,” arguably the next big step in television storytelling by painting a chemistry teacher/drug dealer’s path to Hell (the special kind reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater).

So I have a great deal of interest in the narrative of television writing, but it’s not something I can see myself placing much focus on in this blog as books are our first focus (though some shows, like “Dexter,” are in the queue for proper analysis). There are many people who do make this their focus though, and a new source for such study has popped up in Tarah Scalzo’s “TV Girl.” Tarah, a fellow alumni of the Daily Cardinal’s arts columnist fraternity as the author of “The Taraminator” movie column in 2006-2007, has turned her attention to TV shows in a blog that adheres to the tagline “Television is literature.”

It’s a fairly brief affair so far with only four posts – three on Christmas episodes (part of a Top 10 list I assume) and one on the decline of “House” as a TV show (which I wholeheartedly agree with) – but it’s off to a good start. The writing reflects the crucial entertainment blogger attribute of both knowing and caring about your subject matter, and the writing is engaging without the semi-frequent dips of pretension the Onion’s A.V. Club is guilty of.

So if you’re a professional TV viewer (thanks to my Portland drinking partner Kevin for that phrase) I endorse paying attention to it in upcoming months. There’s always more than one way to tell a story after all.

Oh, There I Am

November 18, 2009

Well. It’s certainly been a long time since I updated last, eh? Over a month where titles have been released to no critical savaging and for some reason searches for autumn-themed desktop wallpaper have driven my site’s daily hits up to hundreds per day. My theory is it has something to do with the image I used for my summer reading list conclusion and my failure to change said image’s name.

But none of you care about that I imagine, and you all want to know why this distinctive voice has flickered and died in the cold void of the Internet.

The lack of updates can be traced to two reasons. The first (and lesser) one is that my azure Acer Aspire (c0lloquially known as Nova Express), on which I’d been writing the majority of the site’s content for the last few months, wound up hitting the ground in September and its screen transformed into to something resembling a modern art kaleidoscope. It still works when I plug it into a monitor, but the entire reason I bought the damn thing was to be able to write anywhere and no one can write anywhere when they have to lug a 20-inch monitor everywhere. I’m hoarding my resources to get a replacement, but surviving means I can’t justify dropping $300. Here’s hoping for a successful Black Friday sale.

The more major reason is that the three of us behind the scenes at TLOTE have been very busy with a variety of things. I have finally broken my seven-month exile in the unemployment wilds and am now working as a project coordinator for a Portland firm, leading to once again pulling 40-hour weeks with little energy for criticism that is not directed at easy media/political targets. My contributors have been busy as well on the other side of the Pacific, with Anna settled into Japan for a year (check out her exploits) and Carrie teaching in a new South Korea school. As such, all three of us are involved in non-book things right now that demand a lot of our time and attention, and as such we sadly can’t pour as much effort into writing for you as we used to.

This doesn’t mean that the site’s going down or that we’re going to stop posting, oh no my brothers. For the forseeable future however, postings will be done “when they’re done” rather than the weekly schedule I had been shooting for in the summer. Some content is brewing – a piece by Carrie in the next day or two, a couple of back-burner reviews and a rather extensive Text-to-Screen piece to start with – so I hope you can bear with a little longer wait for the voices of reason to return.

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll enjoy our upcoming pieces as much as we enjoy working on them.