Sunday, June 26, 2016

It is with a heavy heart that we now have to announce that Black & White Gets Read is going on an indefinite hiatus.  We sadly, have failed to maintain enough reviewers to keep the site going.  If our status changes in the future, we will re-open the site at that time.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Consequences Of A Moonless Night by Loueva Smith

Published by Texas Review Press

Reviewed by G. B. Welch, Ph.D.

In her first chapbook, Consequences of a Moonless Night, Winner of the prestigious Robert Phillips Chapbook Prize, poet Loueva Smith takes us from the East Texas piney woods where she was born to a park bench that fronts the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.  With stunning imagery she tells us that her darkness is always with her, it rearranges the furniture. The family is steeped in Pentecostal beliefs that the world will end in her lifetime.  My father’s mother walks/ with the beast of the Apocalypse/ on a leash down to the livestock/ pond…  for exercise.  Her father tries to build a fire on a cold night with wet wood.  It smolders, but no heat.  He plays Love Me Tender with five rubber bands on a cigar box.  They are so poor the static electricity in their hair has to serve as Christmas lights.  The only thing her father will give Ms. Smith are the names of the constellations in the night sky while her mother remains secluded behind stacks of romance paperbacks breathing through rose petals the scent of a love she longs for.     

Growing up, Ms. Smith is closest to her older brother and, as readers, we stand with the family as he dies, too young, too soon.  He has given her books telling her what to expect from this world: Kafka and Anne Frank’s Diary.  And she asks of her kitchen chairs, when they were felled in the forest did they long to be made into flutes, to have holes drilled for song?  She rescues a crippled bird and tells it, You and I are rooted things.  But then, if Jesus can work on the Sabbath, making clay birds fly, can Ms. Smith become the poet she’s dreamed of being since she was a girl carrying Emily Dickenson’s poems in her pockets? 

Dearest Marie is the first in a series of love letters.  Taken as a group they form a transition between the loss of a loved one, and the beginning of a new love.  In these poems Ms. Smith explores unfamiliar territory.  I can’t learn to pronounce even the simple words…..My voice hides in a cut-lass sugar bowl.  The poems are exploratory, sometimes cautious, certainly gentle.  I touch her ridged childhood scar/……the letter M/ the same as the burn on the inside/ of my lip where I seldom say her name.  Tarot Pair and Recipe introduce the pitfalls of loving.  Marie’s recipe for a meal includes the knee joints of St. Joan of Arc.  Let her pray all night …../ ….It makes the flesh tender.  And finally the last poem, Dearest Marie, (the second poem with this title) unveils the poet with truth, candor, and strength.  Consequences of a Moonless Night leaves our minds wobbly with its expansive journey through lyrical imagery.    

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Acts of Balance by Nancy Means Wright

Published by Finishing Line Press

Reviewed by Carol Smallwood

Vermont writer Nancy Means Wright is the author of seventeen books and has had dozens of poems published in magazines and anthologies such as Bellingham Review and St. Martin’s Press. The 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstoncraft is no stranger to her as she has published a mystery series based on her life. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men.

In her third chapbook,  Acts of Balance, the poet alternates chronologically the voices of the historical Mary Wollstonecraft and a fictional contemporary farmwoman, Fay. For each poem, she’s included a short preface with their name (Mary or Fay), date, and their current concern.

Most of the poems have a work by the fictional contemporary Fay opposite one by Mary Wollstonecraft such as:

Fay Drops in on an Apple Doctor
   Something is growing inside Fay’s breast. Vermont, 1994

Fresh cheeked and white-haired,
he leans over my bare breast
and we talk poems.

Admittedly, he writes a little,
A Carlos Williams. Last week
the poem described an aunt who
died—it was pancreatic cancer.

Breasting the Flood
   Mary gives birth to Fanny. Le Harve, 1794.

When my cat purrs
the fresh stream rushes

under the frail bridge,
the earth rumbles

in the rub of wind;
green twigs snap.

The attractive chapbook’s design is a study balance it self with red endpapers, red ribbon tie, red cardinal bird on the cover. The first poem is by Fay in 1957; the last poem is by Fay, 2012.

The dialogue between the women divided by time and place shows a unity between the two lives, a sharing that women too often do not see among themselves whether they are contemporaries or not. We are in the Third Wave of the Women’s Movement but many women do not realize it which I suspect Mary Woolstonecraft would have understand very well; Wollstonecraft died when she was thirty-eight, shortly after giving birth to her second daughter. I would have enjoyed an introduction by the poet on how she came to write this memorable work.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Answer to My Ellipsis by Donella M. Dornwell
Published by Transcendent Zero Press
Reviewed by henry 7. reneau, jr.

When is a door not a door?

When it is ajar, and any perception “masked in paranoia” may enter, uninvited.  

Every one of our personal perceptions of the world, all our private feelings, are solely dependent upon the chemical balance, or imbalance, of our brains. Answer to My Ellipsis, the first poetry collection by Donella M. Dornwell, shines a discerning light into the impaired reality of mental illness. Her fearless use of introspection and unadorned wording reveals the skewed landscape of her altered reality, like a mirror brought unnervingly close, exposing “. . . the door-matted closet/of dreads I’ve been,” proving both demoralizing and revelatory.

As such, the thoughts and feelings, uncertainties and fears of the sometimes direct, sometimes elusive voices in her poems, once filtered through Dornwell’s poetic second sight, boldly verbalize from the secluded room of loneliness, of pharmaceutical depression, the incorrigible anxiety of desperation, unexpected hallucination, and the almost feral guardedness in her interactions with those labeled rational, stable, sane . . . human:

“You’re a pushover.”
but really I’m evaporated,
saying “yes” to them
but “no” to me.

Shoving me out of happy . . . 

The spotlight she directs inwards, using a sparse poetic methodology similar to Emily Dickinson, probes deep into the prism of “dim thoughts/of menial me,” to then unavoidably refract outwards, illuminating the lurking psychosis, and lack of empathy, sometimes lurking otherwise latent in status quo-deemed “Normals.”

Readers of this collection of poetry will no doubt be inspired by her artistry, courage, and “tight rope walk of stable me” perseverance. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Mutant Neuron Codex Swarm by Juliet Cook and Robert Cole

Published by Hyacinth Girl Press

Reviewed By:  A.J. Huffman

Mutant Neuron Codex Swarm, a 27-page chapbook by Juliet Cook and Robert Cole, is a self-portrait of a relationship as a bad acid trip through hell.  It is brutal and honest in a way that can only come from an almost after-life-like separation from the self.  As readers, we are hovering above the carnage with the speaker, looking down on a train-wreck of a situation with a disdain that is anything but disconnected.

Cook and Cole, two obvious masters of macabre surrealism take us on an imagistic roller-coaster journey through the blood-soaked progression of a transgressive nightmare, drowning in an over-abundant amount of love, lust, hate, sweat and tears.  They open doors -- revealing wounds, skins and private atrocities – that should probably have been nailed shut and abandoned in the deepest bowels of memory, but by doing this they force the reader to not only journey with them through these horror-soaked pages, but also to journey inside themselves as the cataclysmic scenerios begin to seem all-too-familiar.  This bawdy collection of expositions erupting with expletives of lust and frustration born of a stereotypically mundane obsessively co-dependent, self-destructive relationship is as intoxicating as opium, and just as addictive.

Fearless of judgment, Cook and Cole actually welcome the readers’ theoretical commentary.  In Bang It Until It Explodes, they blatantly pose the question:  “Are they human?  You decide.”  This strange awareness of and interaction with the readers subconscious forms an immediate connection, forces more squeamish eyes that might prefer flower-covered denial, to not only engage, but to focus on base-level debauchery splayed in the following pages. 

In a mere 23 poems, Cook and Cole manage to weave a portrait of gravitating build, an eruptive explosion, and a settling into almost sadistic complacency that is beyond impressive in both its uniqueness and its universality.  In Stop the Madness!, we see the point of initiation:  “You know how pussies purr/and then turn into explosive devices.”  At this moment, even though feminine pronouns abound, gender disappears, and male or female, a uniquely human understanding of what is about to happen emerges.  That moment when amazing sex clicks something in the brain screams this is worth any price overrides common sense.  “The telegraph reads DON’T/stop     DON’T stop     DON’T stop” is a testimony to the over-riding confusion that occurs when the body and the mind get lost in intense physical sensation.  “The aftermath/is never good enough.” drives the duplicitous point home – the absence of such amazing sex is a level of down that causes a craving need for duplication, repetition, and the realization that this consuming coupling can only end in something less than the euphoric Xanadu it is held as.

In Induction Obscura, we begin to see the beginning of the ups and downs that can be the only reason even Shakespeare referred to love as “merely a madness”:  “They dig themselves out of the loam. . . down the toilet again.”  As the intensity of the relationship grows, so does the imagery of these emotional potholes: “where the light at the end of the tunnel/is another tunnel smoldering beyond control.” (Churning Codex Portal)

Coagulation Served Cold With Lemon Zest reminds us again of the consciousness of our speaker, the awareness of the torturous destruction that is both being inflicted by her and is being inflicted upon her:  “Allow me to place the napkin just so/upon your lap, around your neck,/the blade tip trained to your ear.”  Even worse, we begin to see the speaker’s awareness of her own helplessness:  “Tied down, hacked off, so much less to potentially love.”  While grisly and grotesque, this awful moment is still completely relatable.  Have we not all tried to metaphorically cut off pieces of a significant other in search of a reason to extract ourselves from a bed relationship, often to no avail? 

And when extraction fails, what is the next human reaction?  Blue Flames in the Nest tells us:  sex becomes a weapon.  “A robe falls to stand up straight/brimming with teeth.”  This idea of the body as weapon is taken one step further in Contamination Ward:  “too drugged to mutter an evocation . . . The doctor waters his perennial scourge . . . Continue the retinal collapse in sub-level three.”  This image of a sexual zombie with intentionally induced blindness flashes like lightning in a starless sky – illuminating to an almost painful extent.  “Is his pen(is) a medicine bag or a blow torch?”  The ugly face of addiction is beginning to emerge.

By the time we reach Swarm One, addiction has consumed both speaker and reader:  “Lucid unrelenting pain proponent, we were somehow winged/with gigantic stingers all over our skin.  Nobody can touch us anymore.”  The emotions of the speaker echo what the reader is feeling.  The scene is too painful to endure, and yet to alive to pull away from.  We are completely consumed.

From that peak moment of unity, immediately we are plummeted into dregs if emotional despair.  Swarm Two blast us with a scathing dose of realization:  “Nobody can save us . . . Ashes ashes we/used to think we were interesting.  Now we are nothing/but rotten fritters that would eat until nothing remains.”  With that slap to our consciousness we are faced with a mirror of entrails that are both otherworldy and our own, and we think this must be the end, this must be where reality strikes and someone is saved.  But no, Copy and Pasty My Eyes shows us that there is no happy ending to be found in this tale.  Clarity is not to be found.  “Here, at the entrance/exist, blinding dust is everywhere.”  And in Final Swarm we are faced with the unwished for reality—sometimes there is no way out, and we see the speaker and her counterpart 10, 20, 50 years in the future still stuck inside this hellish hamster wheel, going nowhere:  “we sit and buzz by an empty fireplace,/wishing the forest would be set ablaze.” 

Finally, Cook and Cole remind us that they have been bleeding intentionally before us by posing just a final question to the reader:  “when we lick the dirty mirror, does it make us more attractive?”  This visceral duo, in all the depravity of the previous pages, shows that there is always a level lower.  The need is still prevalent, but has now changed.  The search for sexual gratification, for emotional sanity and a calmer co-existence, is now manifested in the need for any validation.  Is this literary penance enough to equal a moment of beauty.  Yes.  Yes it is.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and Other Heart Stab Poems
 by Alexis Rhone Fancher

Published by Sybaritic Press

Review by April Salzano

Reading Rhone Fancher’s newest collection is like one of those times you start out fucking and end up crying. Even when sex seems to be for a good fuck’s sake, the layers of meaning remain infinite. There is always more to it than that. Sex is a rite of passage, an exploration of selfhood and femininity, a power trip, a road trip, a mind trip. How you screw is who you are and everyone you refuse to be. Fancher tells us in the poem “Let’s Be Happy Now!” that she not someone’s old lady, but someone’s wet dream, “not the marrying kind,” but “the fucking kind./The lewd lingerie kind.”

While this is certainly one kind of woman within these pages, Fancher also portrays women as much more complex creatures. Her women are stilettos and flats, Mary Jane’s and “two-toned, two-faced saddle Oxfords that guard the door” (“Walk All Over You). They are wives and they are mistresses. They are also bitches, whores and narcissists. They are rape victims and beaten wives with “Dark Options” whose shopping list includes “star fruit, endive, hollow points/and a pair of balls.” They are as much heartbreakers as they are heartbroken. When a woman in this collection is hurt, it is often at the hands of another woman. Perhaps consequently, the female speaker is often as cruel to men as other women have been to her. Women are feared and fearful. One even finds a way to strip a rapist of his power in the poem, “College Roommates,” where she says: “I didn’t mine the rape./It was the softness I minded./He couldn’t get it up/when it mattered.” One trait consistent to women throughout this body of work is their power. They fuck, but they also love, and more importantly, everything they do is with passion. Indifference is not an emotion in Fancher’s repertoire.

Every corner of every poem is alive and vibrant. Although they are fewer than the moments of lust, there are many tender moments within, such as in the ekphrastic pieces closer to the end of the collection. In “White Flag,” for example, we catch a glimpse of another side to the dark, sexually liberated thrill-seeker (or perhaps a different speaker and woman entirely). Who has the power to make her “desperate for a second chance” like one of Hopper’s subjects? The sentiment echoes, haunting in it seclusion, lonely in its juxtaposition within such a body of work so otherwise explicit and sexually charged. This is not to say Fancher resists making even sadness sexy with her subject’s “parted knees, open thighs, that famous shaft of Hopper light a white flag.” As real as this woman is, the woman in the next poem, is nearly a mannequin, an objectified body, painted so that she will “Stay Put,” while her mind wanders the landscape of a framed painting on the wall. The shock here is this boredom not often found when the speaker is naked. Her stillness is heavy with implication.

Fancher leaves it all on the page just like her speakers leave it all on the bed (or the floor or the mustang or the…) Sex is self. Her sexual evolution runs parallel to the notion of self-development and recognition. “It was the most powerful I’d ever be,” she says in “The first time I gave cousin Lisa an Orgasm.” Making someone cum equals a kind of control; cuming means surrender of control. But it’s not quite that simple, as nothing in this poet’s work is. In many pieces, such as “Handy,” surrender is something to fear, akin to being “glued to the sheets or tethered to the box spring,” not objectified, but owned nonetheless. In other pieces, such as one aptly titled “Property,” the speaker, says of a lover’s thumb hooked in her belt loop, “like you have me on/a leash. Like you own me. I’m not sure I don’t like it.” Like all women, the degree to which one is willing to go against her nature is directly proportional to how enamored she is with the one making such a request, whether that means to be owned or to take a picture of her pussy with a Polaroid. The organization of the poems is such that we alternate frequently between two extremes: wanting to be possessed and wanting to defy the very notion. We need only trace the duplicitous use of the word “surrender” in this text to note how frequently the speaker considers allowing herself to be kept, but resists. Vulnerability itself is a “perversion,” as in the poem, “Flashbacks.” Sometimes the notion of desiring a lover too much means “swallowed up/Disappeared.” In other moments, she mocks her own obsessive need for freedom and danger: “When I desire you,/I think: no stringers./Like that’s a good thing,” as in the poem, “Love Bites” where she confesses, “I get all mixed up,” both as to why pain is sexy and why desire might mean ownership.

Though you may start out reading these poems for the sex, you will end up reading them for the raw beauty. The pain of loneliness and heartbreak runs a close second thematically to the many meanings the act of sex can hold. This collection is not for everyone. Just as one with a weak stomach would not read the gory details of an autopsy, a prude should not bother cracking Fancher’s spine. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Femme Eterna by Lyn Lifshin

Published by Glass Lyre Press

Review by April Salzano

Born of a collaboration that unfortunately never came to fruition between Lifshin and Russian painter Luba Serlikova, Femme Eterna examines historical women, Enheduanna, Scheherazade, and Nefertiti, to provide what becomes an ambitious speculation on the women’s innermost thoughts, as well as a comment on their collective and individual impact on feminism and writing.   From an intrigued, and at times obsessive, perspective, Lifshin contemplates each of her subjects with a voice as bold and feminist as the voice she projects onto each woman. Reader-accessibility and understanding is of utmost importance to the poet in this work, as in all of her work, and each woman is examined fully and with Lifshin’s usual unapologetic questioning and fearless explanation in place of esoteric allusion. Also typical of the poet’s previous collections, each poem could easily stand alone, displaying no dependence on the others in the collection. Many are even titled the same, simply with each woman’s name, and include all information necessary for any reader to fully appreciate the subject. It is this very accessibility that allows the reader to become part of this world, to “smell the saffron, feel the hot dust near the pyramids,” just as Lifshin promises in the introduction. As much as she allows us to become immersed in this ancient world, Lifshin still keeps us tethered to the here and now with her signature vernacular, which forms a stark contrast to the world it describes: “Birds no/one now living can/see dart thru brambles,” she writes in “In a Breeze of Dates And Olives, 4000 Years BC”. Just as we forget we were reading ink on paper rather than cuneiform on lapis lazuli tablet, we are reminded by the poet with such an abbreviation or a reference to the difference between that time and our own, which one of the work’s key themes.

At times, the writer adopts the persona of her gorgeous, powerful subject, while in other poems she remains an external voice and outside observer, allowing herself to become a character in this history. Only once the image is fully created does Lifshin interject, always returning us to the vision of a young passionate woman on the banks of the Tigris, weaving words and history into a beautiful braid, giving “birth to what/explodes from/her heart,” as in the poem, “Between the Euphrates and the Tigris.”

The first section is as much a tribute to Enheduanna as Enheduanna’s to the goddess Inanna, a contribution to the very immortalization of which she stands in awe.  Here is a woman, 6000 years before us, that we as readers can associate with, that through “rage and pain” is asking: “Can you still be/a poet-priestess/when your skin/wants a flesh man?” (“Some Days Her Heart Feels No Relief”). Is art alone enough to sustain us? This is one of the many questions of poet, reader, as much as it is of Enheduanna herself.  The relationship between art and life is an essential one to explore as is the nature of language, simultaneously fragile and permanent: “She can’t let/the day go, she/is obsessed,//she is carrying/the embryo of a/poem in her fingers.” Enheduanna shows us the restlessness Lifshin colors her with, a young writing because she has to, often showing little control over the act of creating art. With or without her consent, Enheduanna creates, each poem becomes a divine act, “each shape/glowing with the/ambiguity poetry/demands,” as in the poem “When She Pressed Her Web-Shaped Reed into Soft Clay.”

Much like Enheduanna, Scheherazade is alive and well in this collection, despite the nightly danger she faced at the hands of the Sultan if she was unable to entertain him with her stories. Lifshin tells us in her introduction that this is a woman “easy to identify with,” which one finds to be, however unfortunately, a profoundly true statement. At the beginning of this section, Lifshin sets up the notion of sexuality coming second in importance to artistic importance, the latter a more difficult test to cheat on, and a task that cannot be faked. In the third poem in this section, “Scheherazade,” our subject is clad in blue, “not the wild bullfight flame/color that drives men wild/as the story goes,/but calm.” Importance and focus is placed on her word, not her physical form.  The hypnotized husband becomes the “you” in most of this section, forcing the reader to identify with him, to become as taken with the speaker as we are the author, both performing the same task, luring us with their imaginations, one through the other. “Each tale,” she tells us “like the third person/in this ménage à /trois where words tempt/more than bodies,” as she shows in “How Could Her Palms Not Be Wet?” She offers the scenario of man, woman, and story locked in an intimate triste. The reader becomes the fourth member, breath held, a fearful voyeur who cannot turn away. The speaker’s ongoing plots become a “strip tease,” each night only a shred of clothing removed as a new plot unravels in the ongoing effort to stay alive. We get the sense that the imminent danger adds adrenaline we presume is needed to do what she has to do to stay alive. Lifshin interestingly equates Scheherazade to Rapunzel in “ Each Night She is Like A Drowning Nymph,” with her words as her rope, both women sacrificing themselves to escape their fate.

Lifshin saves the best for last, paying tribute to the mystery and beauty of Nefertiti through poems as sensual and strong as the woman herself. Speculating on the many theories about the woman’s life and death, Lifshin paints the third portrait in her collection, this one maintaining the state of the “perpetual arousal” Lifshin warns us of in the section’s introduction. We are also shown a deep admiration, as the author conjures ideas of what Nefertiti may have thought and felt during all phases of her life, as woman, mother, as goddess and king, multifaceted “like a flower/that keeps unfolding,” but, as time has shown, nowhere near as fragile or ephemeral, as she shows us in “Hours Posing for the Sculpture.” Nefertiti’s beauty and power has lasted beyond what she could have imagined, though Lifshin certainly instills in her version of this mythical creature a kind of prescience rivaled only by her sex appeal. “[H]er skin can barely/keep her inside,” we see as the young woman poses for the sculptor who will immortalize her, a knowledge of her own beauty, which seems to feed itself infinitely.

Maybe due to the accessibility of the work, to the balance of speculation and fact, or perhaps because of the ease with which the poet navigates her subject, this collection comes to a close before we are ready to let go, leaving us sitting in the sun on the banks of the Nile, thinking of these three beauties, each a petal of that forever-unfolding flower, wondering why we haven’t read more poetry about them. Ultimately, the collection as whole educates as much as it admires, and the subject matter is presented with equal parts knowledge and grace.