Announcement: TLOTE’s Carrie Lorig Published in elimae

August 3, 2010

While it doesn’t fall within the usual boundaries of criticism and analysis you’ve come to expect from TLOTE, I wanted to take a moment and let readers know that our own resident poetry critic Carrie Lorig has been successfully practicing what she preaches. Carrie’s new poem, “Let the record show,” was published in the latest edition of the online literary magazine elimae and is reprinted below. Hearty congratulations to Carrie from the TLOTE community, and I hope you’ll take a moment to read her words and ponder the fantastic imagery.

Let the record show

what we caught in the background of the photograph.
it was you
on the piano.
the children licking the walls.
what the murder was thinking
when it answered its own heated questions
the victim was really gone.
it was standing alone in a tobacco field,
several vegetable weevils
and one green peach aphid.
she had demanded to be buried in a birdcage.
everyone wore purple like they were asked to.
bruises did not count.
us, on the roof, counting the rib bones in the gutters.
the cracks went all the way down
to the living room.
what flowed between them.

Poetry Review: Scary, No Scary

March 6, 2010

Scary, No Scary

By Zachary Schomburg

Published August 17, 2009

Black Ocean

80 pp.

ISBN 0-977-77099-0

Reviewed March 6, 2010

Zachary Schomburg’s Surrealist poems always seem best suited for night reading: a writing style that is dark and quiet, and speaks regularly about a particular kind of loneliness, the type that always seems to grip you hardest when you’re lying in bed. His critically acclaimed debut collection, “The Man Suit,” took that feeling into the dream world, full of playful and unhinged imagery, and now he’s gone deeper into the night with “Scary, No Scary.” These are poems which possess all the vivid “awake-ness” of a nightmare, where reality always seems most supple for molding and the extremes of our imaginations and fears don’t know whether to hug or punch each other.

Unlike “The Man Suit,” “Scary, No Scary” seems to follow one narrative, an attractive quality for non-poetry readers. All the poems are connected by an adolescent narrator over four parts, wandering through a dark and strange stretch of woods.  What he sees leans towards the absurd. People climb inside of wolves and they morph into beating hearts, hummingbird bones scatter across the page, and rivers fill up with lava and blood while jaguars gnaw hungrily on the horizon like it’s nothing but a bone. The images climb in and out of the poems as the book moves on, continually circling the narrator as he presses on in search of someone or something he can’t name in boats going nowhere.

Schomburg’s imagined landscape is decidedly post-apocalyptic, to the point that Verse‘s Timothy Henry casually alluded to “Scary, No Scary” as a more adventurous, psychedelic version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” The holes Schomburg’s words carve for us offer glimpses into a completely unmapped, unregulated world – unregulated at least by human standards. Our reign over order and space is quite obviously over. When buildings appear, they crumble to the touch and are greedily replaced by a new kind of nature, which thrives wildly, almost grotesquely:

“The clouds were not shaped like clouds/ A tree was blooming with broken hummingbirds instead of leaves. / Instead of a sun, a slow explosion” (This Is What You Need to Know About the World, Pretend Son).

Lightness and darkness, our most basic symbols of time and the order that goes with it, are unpredictable, overwhelming the narrator as he moves through the mega fauna forest:

“I climb the trees / through 1000 rooms. / I look for you / in each of them / You’re a long shiny line” (Abandoned Hotel).

The narrator’s journey is made more difficult by the fact that people, like the weathered buildings, have been stripped of their humanity. Typical means of language have either been lost or forgotten, and there are no names or proper speech:

“Is this your beating heart I asked. She didn’t answer. She didn’t have a larynx. She didn’t even have a thorax. / She didn’t have anything. Not even arms or legs or a head. She / really wasn’t a woman as much as she was the space between dead leaves” (I Found A Beating Heart Half-Buried In The Woods).

What we lose, nature seems to gain. Trees are the ones who bleed. Our legacy is in danger:

“We have a daughter / who was never born. / She lives in the house we never built” (New Kind of Light).

A reader might wonder what exactly Schomburg is looking for in a desolate, post-apocalyptic setting, and what the speaker is looking for. This place quickly and easily strips the narrator and the language of the meaning it had in the world we know, leaving us to wonder what could possibly be left. But “Scary, No Scary” pushes the reader to find the surprise and poignancy in that nothingness. With the walls between them gone, horror and delight are bound to run close together.

I really can’t think of better way to embody the line between such high, seemingly contradictory emotions than a teenager. Everyone is childlike in the book. When the narrator meets a group of men, they speak in a language of nonsense, full of “Na na na na kya kya kya” (A Horrible Flood of Love).

It strikes me that at this particular stage of life an adolescent might just as well find the “normal” world equally as terrifying and electrifying as this post-apocalyptic one. A teenager is a being at once both decaying and growing in strange, new ways, caught between instinct and civilization, and naturally isolated by such in-betweenness. However, the teenager’s behavior, even in a world that is supposedly turned upside down, remains predictable in some ways a reader will recognize.  He’s impulsive, wide-eyed, unsure, and hell-bent on getting some.

“I’ll show you the cave / where all the bats comes from. / You’ll show me that place / between your knees / where my hand goes” (The Pond)

Even if the world is “an old parade unhinging,” where not even sex can produce any kind of life, the narrator’s efforts sentiments and search remains powerful.

“When the bats / break / from the mouth of / the cave / hold on tight / to my waist.”

The genius I find in Schomburg’s particular brand of surrealism is that his images soar up and out of some lost galaxy of imagination that seems so unreachable, and yet, you will still feel touched in familiar places. This book is everything I remember about being in the woods as a kid. A rustle of leaves was never a deer. A brief wave of a tree was never just hello. The third section, entitled Histories, which is on its most obvious level is an exercise in the logic of reality, seems to speak also about memory. Schomburg offers us images inside of a house and then immediately takes them away.

“I sit in a chair / There is no chair” (The Chandelier Age).

It reminded me of seeing, for the first time in a long time, a house you once lived in. Until you go inside, you are under the delusion that it will be exactly as it was. It’s as jarring as it is funny to imagine a person moving around a house and trying to go through with their routine, only to be repeatedly unable to do it.

“Scary, No Scary,” takes everything we know and dangles it over a black hole, and then it pushes us to where “you just keep falling / right there/ at it’s infinite lip” (The Black Hole). Hummingbirds and jaguars and boats all fall into the hole, but as the book continues they all come out the other side. The book’s scenarios put us in awe of ourselves, of our persistence for love and connections, and then, just as suddenly, we are embarrassed by ourselves, by our ability to just as easily devour and draw blood in the name of such desires.

Schomburg is a playful mastermind. He wants us to find our own sense of rebirth from nothingness, where “Everything I plant/I bury” (Look Through the Complex Eye and See 1000 of Everything). You will leave this book completely tenderized, in both the hand-touching and the slab-of-meat-pulverized sense of the word.

Extra Credit:

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: Dear Everybody (or: When a Poet Writes a Novel)

September 24, 2009

Dear Everybody

Dear_EverybodyBy Micheal Kimball

Published September 1, 2008

Alma Books

288 pp.

ISBN 1-846-88055-6

Reviewed September 24, 2009

Unlike actors who become politicians or Disney’s tween actors with platinum-iced singing dreams, I like authors who figuratively cut off the hands that made them famous and go at it with a new pair.

What writers seem to maintain when they pack up and skip out on their genre, that these other annoying public figures don’t, is sincerity. Readers tend to see such attempts by authors as the cultivation of  some new basement brew of ingenuity. The writer seems to be holding the values of literature, which consistently hail curiosity and imagination, closer to them so as to examine more shrewdly from a different angle.

In the case of Micheal Kimball, the writer of the novel “Dear Everybody,” we have a writer trading in the high-speed, downtown feel of  poems for the stretching,  interstate highways of a novel.

“Dear Everybody” is a collection of letters, conversations, diary entries, and encyclopedia articles that makes Jonathan Bender’s life finally come together just when it has completely dissolved. Jonathan’s suicide forces his brother, Robert, who insists that he never understood or was close to Jonathan, to create a self-portrait that Jonathan himself – crippled by depression and memories of childhood abuse at the hands of overweight, adulterous father – was only capable of seeing in blurry bits and pieces.

In the beginning of the novel, Robert remarks snidely, in brackets drawn on the bottom of the page, that he wishes Jonathan had just written one letter to “everybody.” It’s a statement that is absolutely heartbreaking in it’s dismissive tone. However, for the reader it starts off the first echo of a demand that haunted Jonathan his whole, stunted life.  “Why can’t you just make things easier for all of us?”

Despite Jonathan’s mental bruises and moth-eaten social skills, it’s clear he cares deeply for those he tries to connect with. He gets painfully close to getting it right with his wife, Sara. Seeing the glass shards of those few relationships clustered together exposes the inevitable patterns of Jonathon’s behavior. Depression and dark memories were the only thing Jonathan could consistently keep around. Though the ending is, of course, defined from the beginning, the clever addition of skeptical Robert does allow the reader to hope that someone from his Jonathan’s life has finally heard him.

Kimball’s background as a poet is apparent in his ability to isolate and frame small moments of a particular character’s experience. Fine attention to detail is exercised both as an art and as a special effect, heightening and diversifying the book’s emotions at a clipped pace. You will finish this book in a day or two. It has a surprisingly strong dark humor for being about such a serious topic, his observations are keen and quirky, and he knows how to let imagery make a scene swell. It all keeps the book far away from being saccharine and sentimental.

Plus, there’s something about letters, right? Kimball’s letters seem like purgatory to me. The letter writer reaches out for the people  he wants to feel close  to, but only after it’s too late.  He damns himself, and the reader, over and over again with each letter. He  purges honest feeling and pent up regrets, but it’s an illusion of resolution. He wants nothing to do with responses and at the end of each letter: no matter how alive the prose feels, he is still dead. This writing spree has all the highs and lows of a drug binge.

I think it’s telling as well that the novel wouldn’t even make sense if the letters made up the novel by themselves.  Gaps must be filled in by several other one-sided conversations. Jonathon’s mother’s diary fills in many gaps, as does Sara’s eulogy and Robert’s commentary. No one manages to speak to anyone else in this book, and the book ends up being a sad consequence of that. All of this seems like a  sly jib from Kimball towards a piece of writing or an individual that fail to do anything but listen to itself speak.

Jonathan’s beautiful letters are a collection of broken wires – every one is unfinished and loss seems to be the only thing that pushed Jonathan to keep writing towards the end. Every time the reader imagines the physical presence of Jonathan, you’re supposed to see a man with his mouth clamped shut, a man who has lost control of the conversation.

Poetry Review: Sudden Anthem

July 16, 2009

Sudden Anthem

Sudden AnthemBy Matthew Guenette

Published February 8, 2008

Dream Horse Press

84 pp.

ISBN 0-977-71824-7

Reviewed July 16, 2009

On my summer reading list, I labeled Matthew Guenette as, “The Hometown Hero” because, unbeknownst to me, he has been teaching at the technical college in Madison for a few years now and Sudden Anthem, was released shortly before I graduated from the UW. Since most people living in the Midwest tend to be friendly and laid-back, I imagine I could’ve managed to chat with him or get a signed copy of his book for less than I paid to have it shipped to Asia from some faceless, worn warehouse in Indiana.

My point is: Poets. You are shopping next to them at the farmer’s market.

“Sudden Anthem” is the product of a seven year labor, which I think ends up suiting the book well. Guenette is still a really young poet, but his first book is evidence that he’s already spent a lot of time experimenting with his style. Like photographers, poets can create a lot of pictures of the same thing or the same place in their work, trying to get the perfectly worded money shot. But this book has obviously moved with Guenette, seen a lot of different landscapes and taken on a lot of different jobs. In his biography, Guenette mentions that he’s been a busboy, a landscaper, and a salesclerk. It mentions a childhood in New Hampshire, several stops in and around the Midwest.

Instead of posed shots and still scenes, the book offers up a disorganized scrapebook of gas stations, malls, and contorted self-portraits. In the “Seven Prepositons of a Bus Boy”, the split narrator states, “The Ghost of Me/It already exists…My ghost should have serious questions for me/like, who do you think you are? Or, what the fuck?”

Guenette, however, doesn’t resist this chaos and seems willing to promote range as a strength. The first half of the book is written in a more straightforward style while the second half toys with form, drawing you further into Guenette’s clever imagination. What keeps it all together is the consistent tightness of his language, which has punch that hovers between joking and real. “The evening/ divides (in two) couplets./ Sizzle steak. Wasp’s sting,” the poem “Problems of Transcendence” quips. Figures from popular culture and the academic world drink in the same bar, and Guenette’s narrator, like much of the world, seems confused as to who to look to, who to take seriously, or at least, unable to look away. He writes in the poem, “The Hush of Something Endless,” “But a stone-rhined Dolly Parton/kept bring more and more bottles of wine./Pretty soon I was terrifically drunk,/tripping from room to room like one/of Faulkner’s minor fools telling ridiculous/ lies to anyone who would listen.”

While reading this book, I immediately thought of how well it answers to a quote by David Foster Wallace I furiously underlined in his introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays,

“Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.”

We receive a million hits of all kind of information and images every day. We, ourselves, are more popular than any video on YouTube. It’s the reality, as we all know by now, of the modern world. And Guenette, unlike many writers, doesn’t seem fearful of it. He’s critical of it, certainly. In “Problems of Transcendence,” he writes, “And look how helpless we are; that’s one message/Another one is huh? and what?” But he also pushes forward, and that’s what makes his poetic voice sane. “We know the dream is other dreams smashed/to fragments but sometimes the fragments/fight back,” he writes in the poem “Arkein.” Guenette’s voice is smart and witty, almost nimble enough to seem one step ahead and laughing at all of us. But there is still a sense of intimacy there, and poignancy, rooted in a willingness to embrace the near-infinity of experiences available in the world.