Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Sky Needs More Work by Corey Mesler

Published by Upper Rubber Boots
ISBN 978-1-937794-41-5

Reviewed By:  A.J. Huffman

The Sky Needs More Work, by Corey Mesler, is an articulate and poignant portrait of a man – a man degrading, a man struggling, a man re-evolving, and, most importantly, a man surviving.  Nowhere is this more eloquently summed up, than in “A Man Walking,” where the speaker clearly states, “I am a man walking/into a mirror.”  As these lines show, this collection as whole is an introspective look into one man’s life.  This idea shows up again in “Old Hob,” when the speaker sees himself as an old man he does not recognize, and again in “Bardo,” where he states:  “I am air, fire/and loss of balance.”  Furthering the nearly suffocating fog the speaker is drowning in, Mesler reveals an underlying psychosis, later revealed as agoraphobia.  The speaker seeks tangible treatment for this issue, but, in poems like “The New Medicine,” we see the real antidote is communication, writing:  “See, you’re already listening/and that’s medicine, too.”

The writer is acutely aware of his own vacillation throughout these poems, an evident connectivity that pulls reader in with speaker to a place where Mesler weaves a vision of torturous phantoms of all guises, the two most prevalent being words and women. 

Mesler peppers his shadowy cloud with disparaging pop-culture and historical references like 9/11 and John Lennon’s death.  Tangible hits to the reader’s heart, these communal references pull us deeper into the darkness by playing on universal knowledge and memories.  The ghosts of everyone’s past stand as tyrannical, juxtapositional threads, tying us to the speaker, resonating his pain.

In this emotional revolution of poems, Mesler takes us through a lifetime’s expedition of a man searching for a tangible escape through “the door,” an image that is prevalent in key poems like “Dream of the Folktale” “Agoraphobe’s Litany” and “Black Dog on the Porch.”  The speaker regards this door as an unattainable solid that he cannot find because he lives in a liquid world, a consuming fog-filled miasma of uncertainty he cannot work his way through.  It takes the speaker the entire collection, which represents a whole lifetime, to realize the door was something else, something intangible, something inside that had to be unlocked, opened.  The speaker lands that realization in “Black Dog on the Porch,” where he states: “My hand felt/like a fresh weapon.  My/hand felt like another opening.”  This enlightenment, this new “escape,” came through writing, the very task that plagues the speaker at the beginning of the collection. 

Mesler is a master of the metaphor of writing as cathartic exorcism.  In the opening poem, we see that words are his life, his struggle.  “Dear Editor” is a self-effacing, satirical dialogue with some universal editor where the speaker claims “The poem you accepted/is no longer mine.”  He continues to claim “it lost its way, wandered” and “became something other,” as if the poem was an entity completely unto itself, disassociated from its maker.  This speaker is lost, consumed by lack of control, and does not have the “heart or wherewithal/to even try to make sense” of his own words.

Words, however, are just one set of ghosts that haunt this collection.  Like words, women also claw at him from the shadows.  In “A History of Lovers,” the speaker regales a list of past lovers and their subsequent lessons.  He ends with the longing, desperate lines:  “I am standing there still/waiting for another lover,/one who will startle me,/reject me, kill in me/what wants another and another lover.”  These lines cast an uncontrollable desperation over the initial poems of this collection.  Later in the collection, despite a change in tone indicative of personal evolution, the examination of both major themes persists.  In fact, in “Cock-a-Hoop” the speaker seamlessly melds his two phantom tormentors, words and women, into one.  “Cock-a-Hoop” is a bluntly sensual metaphor of woman as poem, and the result is that these images linger, creating a transference of ghosts as the reader also becomes haunted by this recurring idea. 

Just when the collection begins to weigh on the reader, threatens to consume us with its hopelessness, Mesler turns on a light in “The Remainder at Gettysburg,” the transitional poem in this collection.  Here, the speaker notes, “What saves us is always unexpected,” and he is right.  From this poem on, the same ghosts, the same memories rise like phoenixes.  Painful scars of the past now take on a scabbed-over quality that is even therapeutic as the speaker picks at them.  This undercurrent of not-quite-optimistic desire to change is immediately noticeable.  Even the speaker’s view of himself changes.  In “Megrims,” he refers to himself as “an experiment of a man.”  “A Life Colored” continues this dialogue of desire for change.  Make no mistake, the speaker is still haunted by ghosts – ghosts of memories, ghosts of people (both living and dead) – even his family takes on a ghostly quality.  His references to his wife and children are as almost ephemeral figures floating around him, attempting to cling to him.  Nothing is solid, but instead of drowning in their darkness, he looks to these ghosts, as if they can hold the answers, the key to that door.

Rehabilitating realizations begin to turn up all through the second half of this collection.  In “The Cancer of Believing You are in Control,” the light bulb goes on:  “it is a cancer to/believe you are in control.”  This new mantra brightens the speaker’s outlook.  He is coming to terms with his present.  In “The Body Opens Like a Flame,” he can now see that “There is a stillness in/vulnerability, a stillness that/is almost consoling.”  The speaker now has a new mission as described in “Way Fairer”:  “I set out with the intention/of sewing that/shadow to a soul.” 

Finally, Mesler brings the collection full-circle in “The Last Poem.”  Our speaker has written and remembered his way through the darkness and is ready to re-emerge in the light.  In “The Last Poem,” we are once again in dialogue with the same universal editor as in “Dear Editor,” and while the self-effacing tone still lingers, there is an element of hope in the newfound desire of the speaker to get his words, those turbulent ghosts, published.  “The End of the Year of Darkness” sums it up best:  “What is/lost is lost” and “What I create is good,” and what Mesler managed to create in these 88 pages is beyond good.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Wild Part by Jerry Craven

Angelina River Press

Reviewed by Carol Smallwood

            In the award winning author’s preface, Jerry Craven relates his novel came from memory “filtered through imagination.” The author manages the difficult task of capturing a boy’s point of view; some of Don’s views are from movies that his fellow companion, a native girl, isn’t familiar. The Wild Part is multi-layered fiction for youth and adults about  Don and Rosita that begins when they leave their village of El Tigrito to catch a ride to a village to see a shrunken head supposedly hung in a shop; they end up in the interior of Venezuela.

            Rosita is a strong native girl who knows how to live off the land and tells Don: “Where there are frogs, there will be snakes. We should climb a tree to keep above the snakes.” Don worries about his family who are probably looking for him but after all their adventures, wonders if instead of returning home, they should return to the jungle where Rosita wouldn’t be laughed at.

            The point of view is the coming of age boy reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn and his travels with the slave, Jim. Rosita wisely concludes near the end of the novel, ”People are the strangest animals in the jungle” and refers to Evita Peron many times as someone held in high regard by her people. The novel that shows instead of tells, can be read as an adventure story by young adults and as a novel exploring wider questions such as the role of women, faith, good and evil, society, equally resonant to adults: it whispers and avoids shouting. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegory, Young Goodman Brown which also starts at dusk in the wilderness, it’s a journey into self-scrutiny.

            Living off the land suggestions by Rosita are especially appealing such as: catching water with a large leaf: one of them drinking while the other watching for anaconda; Don can speak Spanish and they run across a wide variety of characters from miners to witches. Humor is evident as in the chapter when the main characters discuss the best way to deal with bats, vampires, and coffins: how each of them manages the unfolding of events shows their character and what they think their expected roles of a blond boy and dark haired girl.

            I would have liked to have had more about the lives of the two main characters before they began their trip—what their families, home, and village were like, and something about how their trip related to their future: more development of the other people in the novel also would give contrast to events.

            At the end of the paperback are very helpful discussion questions for teachers and book club leaders such as ways the novel evokes the Garden of Eden. There are important questions about faith, God, and a variety of native snakes that appear in different scenes; the novel brought to mind Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its questions about civilized society, racism, and its use of snake symbolism in pilgrim passages.

            The novel won Foreword’s Book of the Year Wards Indiefab Finalist for Best Novel of the Year in two categories. Another book by the author is Saving a Songbird and Other True Stories from Texas to Venezuela