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. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Poet & Vampire by Chuck Taylor

Published by MadCityPublications

Reviewed by:  henry 7. reneau, jr.

Like Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, Chuck Taylor's poetry is prose-edified to parables erecting an artifical electric fence between two camps that may disagree, but are no longer that dissimilar from one another.  The result is not just a bastardization of poetry to prose, or vice versa, but a rethinking of the parameters of voice--becoming a "vehicular" language casually slipping in and out of identities, pushing against the public/private language binary:

"The poem must rhyme at the end of the line and beat in
                                         a standard rhythm . . . "

at the heart of the formalist, pseudo-avant-garde, academic canon.  Taylor writes poetry that disrupts literary business as usual, poetry that articulates the unheard, unthinkable, and unknown in tongue-in-cheek increments of satire, irony, and deprecating hindsight.  Think, Groucho Marx, Stephen Hawking, and Jesus walk into a bar . . . 

His collection channels dueling alter-egos of the body electric--Poet as everyman, Vampire as eternal observer of human nature--who project an optimistic expansiveness, while simultaneously evoking the visceral misapprehensions of life:

". . . is not Poet a kind of vampire?  Is not Poet sneakier in the way he moves around and
               listens, hiding in plain sight as an ordinary person, sucking out the blood of lives and 
               spitting it off the tongue and onto the page?"

At the heart of this collection resonates a spiritual but revolutionary zeal mischievously opposed to the cloying shibboleths of 2014 America:  a neo-Beat that seeks to upend Western literary tradition, and develop languages and forms that reject western-influenced craftsmanship.

The alternating points of view (Poet/Vampire) create a speculative second-person poetics of observational introspection, a narrative attuned to an

". . . ancient wisdom that says at times you don't want to travel a bee line, you want to
                  twist this way and that, and then head back a ways, before channeling forward."

Virtues and failings, love and loss, success and comeuppance, are sifted and analyzed to finally ". . . know what we're thinking years before we're thinking it."  Taylor's poetry/prose/pensees are addictive sojourns into unpredictable landscapes teeming with a confluence of the mundane and with the extraordinary, capricious realities startled by the eccentricities of the supernatural, or the human conscience juggling apples of moral virtue before an audience of absolute evil.  The reader rides shotgun through the West Texas desert and encounters a naked hitchhiker, who becomes "a moving open window into another world," a view soon terra-formed to a field of sunflowers that reveal themselves as "green stalky animals with giant yellow eyes," dizzy in their adoration of the sun.  The binding element in each abbreviated tale of this collection is the healthy dose of humour, ranging from vaudevillian slapstick to an almost morbid sense of eventuality that laughs at itself, punctuating each parable with buoyant closure, unexpected cliff-hanger, or a sudden curtain fall of teaser that simply turns the punch line in the direction the Poet/Vampire speaker wants it to go.

Poet & Vampire is prophet, wise man, holy man, the semi-divine trying to make a dollar outta' fifteen senses--the absurd with the willfulness of prescience, that delivers the reader from the deceptions, if not the often bizarre and unaccommodating vagaries, of life.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Red Demolition by Juliet Cook

Published by Shirt Pocket Press

Reviewed By:  A.J. Huffman

Red Demolition, a 16-poem chapbook by Juliet Cook, is an almost-primevally surreal portrait of a woman swimming in the murky aftermath of a broken relationship.  The guttural grief and visceral imagery explode across the pages to create a jaggedly accurate vision of the nightmare life becomes when there is nothing solid left to hold onto.  Cook’s poems create a bloody, but beautiful, storyscape of those transformative moments in a woman’s (or really anyone’s) life when every breath is agony, when every mundane action is a bad-acid-trip flashback that cuts like a surgeon’s scalpel.

In the opening poem, “Head Twists” we find the speaker faced with the fracturing removal from a perceived happily ever after.  The rug has been pulled out from under her feet, and she acknowledges a lack of control that has descended with this new reality:  “I thought I was real until I became nothing but swerving.”  This line resonates as both a universal accepted emotional response to a romantic breakup and as an initiating stone for the tone that ripples across these pages.  Cook has created a manic blur of a speaker, a ghost of a woman who sees herself in the assumed reflections of some common and somewhat catastrophic objects.  In “Head Twists” we see the first of these reflections as being a “headless manikin.”  The speaker is looking at herself in such an image, pondering if such a headless “manikin might be more level headed than the current twisting me.” 

In “Why I Dye My Hair Red” we see the speaker assume the reflection of “a Bloody Mary,” a spilled drink.  The metaphor is subtle as a sledgehammer:  “don’t drop me, don’t drop me,/but they always do,” and we, as readers, are falling and breaking right along with her.  We continue to sink and break and drown with Cook as the path gets darker.  In “Vintage Pom Pom Underwater” the speaker sees herself as “A mummified octopus . . . like a broken balloon who suddenly turned old.”  The murky waters of this image is somewhere most women drown.  Aging is something we, as a gender, have been trained to fear.  This image of a deflated, wrinkling form, is a suffocating force that almost forces readers to pause, and consciously take a steadying breath.

The idea of fear takes a different turn in the later poems.  The speaker, while still disjointed and thrashing about in a bloody miasma of poisonous memories, seems to take on a more clinical calm, begins to dissect the mess she has become.  “It starts with a multi-colored glitter dress lifted up high/to show thighs wrapped with garter belts made out of garter/snakes.”  This opening image from “Love Can Be a Chokecherry” sets the perfect, if overtly biblical, stage for the subtle undercurrent of fear that echoes through the remainder of this collection:  that she let this happen.  The fear of responsibility is palpable:  “She knows another nightmare is coming.”  The fear of knowledge and deliberate ignorance of the same is also addressed in “Insecticide Dye Job”:  “They poison you and then pull themselves out.”   This particular poem also holds the fear of the future in its opening lines:  “Nobody else can keep you inside them long enough to glue you/back together.  Nobody wants to anyway.” 

Finally, while the final poem, “Not another Replication,” hints at survival, potential desire to move forward—  “I need to keep drinking red glass/after glass so my love doesn’t turn into mildew”—as readers we are left with the image of the speaker being as broken as the reflections she donned earlier.  Cook drives this home in “Vintage Pom Pom Underwater” and “Blue Marriage” respectively:  “I’m sinking down inside my own tiny body bag again.  Alone alone alone.” “Love is the color of dead blue skin silently screaming.”  As readers we heard her blue skin screaming; we felt the body bag slowly zipping closed.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Wicker Girl by Janna Vought

from Virgo eBooks Publishing

Review by April Salzano

Janna Vought’s chapbook explores the female existence through one woman’s personal evolution, which is fraught with failure, self-loathing, and disgust of her surroundings. The speaker within these tortured pages seeks to unravel the enslaved notion of femininity. The progression from Girl to Woman, as the first two sections are appropriately titled, is unfortunately lateral. The final section and stage of life is “Soul,” an independent, severed portion of the female self that gains brief reprieve through acts of art and imagination, but ultimately, remains destined to repeat the timeless misfortune of her sisters cursed to the confines of womanhood with its “muted tongue” and “hands bound.”

            Girlhood, both concept and section, is a two-act play that ends in tragedy. “Family mythology” is the story of the speaker’s mother and first vision of woman, a “Bella Donna trapped/inside a chain-smoking/housewife sentenced” to the speaker’s father “by fate.” This, we realized early, is a place where “Adults in aluminum chairs, weave misinterpreted history.” We also learn in this section just how important perception is to truth. In one prose poem we are taken on a punctuated, truncated ride through history, courtesy of a collection of images recalled from birth to adulthood, those “years tied to a gasoline stake.” The speaker, her own version of a witch, commands her body to separate from her soul and mind while flesh loses life and she burns the house down.

            “Fragments of My Rape,” assaults us with splintered imagery, a whole that when pieced together is as gruesome as its component parts. In the room where the young girl is violated, faith dies along with her innocence. “Black eyes/God’s eyes” fill the face of the perpetrator while the speaker blames only herself for being ignorant. The rape and it’s “aftershocks” transform the her before our eyes from one who is able to love, to one who “lay[s] siege” to herself through reliving memory and self-mutilation, though one is indiscernible from the other. Her “toxic memories” are as harmful as any “razor-slice,” as are the eating disorders and the alcohol to drown or purge the unanswered prayers. “Fuck you, God,” a broken girl finally says. “One day, that room from long ago bursts/into pure light,” and forgetting is no longer an option. Gone is every “trace of the shadow/that kept me company,” she tells us. In the light of truth and surfaced memory, the speaker drowns. “Let me sleep./Bring the rain,” she begs. “Ignorance is woman’s virtue;/intelligence sleeps with demons.”

            In the next section, the author confirms that this is indeed a woman forever haunted, one who hates herself perhaps more now as “wife-mother” than she did as a child. She is ghosted and confined to a silence that “clangs within.” In “A Haunting,” she reveals what she wants from life: to not “end/up forgotten, burnt wood/turned to ash, dissipating/into empty air.” In “Heretic’s Hymn,” the speaker shows us that not much has changed from girl to woman. She still refuses faith: “God doesn’t believe/in me—I don’t believe/in Him.” The feminist reader hears the echoes of Plath and Sexton in Vought’s contemplation of the end and the very purpose of female existence and self-identity. In “Stepford Wives Revisited, she fears “life will never end.” With a literary nod to Sexton she allows us to glimpse into her madness: “Most days I don’t remember. I haunt/the clothes I wear,” followed by a tribute to Plath with the line “I’m perfected for nothing.” As Vought situates herself next to these two Queens of Darkness, she shows that death, for all three women is “the only way” to rid themselves “of the stranger inside,” to become both Self and Other, sharing “stories/of the end, where “they’ll wash away/all fingerprints and tears.” The breakdown of Vought’s speaker is as indicative of her time as Plath’s or Sexton’s, but sadly just as futile in the midst of the mundane, the milk and butter and eggs, as she shows in the poem “Madness,” where she loses it in Safeway. “Clean up Aisle 7!” is one of the few lines of humor in this work, however bleak. Equally dark and disturbing are the portraits of despair and loneliness painted in “Snapshots of Suburbia,” where women are their pathetic stories of “the depths of their desire,” from “Bed, Bath,/and Beyond,” clutching iPhones and lamenting loss alone. Each character that the speaker voyeuristically observes has a name and an action that defines her. “Tween Queen” regurgitates her “Hostess cupcakes/and Dulcolax. Her friends/don’t have to do a thing/to wear skinny jeans.” It becomes unclear which is worse, the “good girls whittled to bone, blue veins pulsing,” or the “tangle of sorrow” that spider webs from their lives, consumed with jobs they hate, children they fear, and husbands they can’t find, all of which become the “corpses piled high,” the charade the speaker leaves behind as she moves from Woman to Soul. “A beautiful exit” is the death of a witch. “The Living Word” provides some solace, perhaps the only in this tortured story where just like the apathetic world in which we live, we see “no wrists heavy/with broken chain,” where our very apathy provides kindling for a centuries-long fire.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Likely Story, by Robbi Nester 

Published by Moon Tide Press

Reviewed by: April Salzano

Though closely sewn around the theme of the power of narrative, Robbi Nester’s collection, A Likely Story, presents poems that are eclectic in style, form, and tone, utilizing everything from ekphrastia to myth, parable, and parody. In a nine-part organization, Nester examines the natural world, and the observer’s place therein. The pieces are rich with imagery and demonstrate our interconnectedness with the world, with our histories, and with each other.

            “I can’t be sure my source was factual,” the speaker tells us in “Chronicle,” the second poem in the opening section, Tall Ones. The narrator makes this disclaimer only after repeating tales of goat-sized rats and a woman eaten by her anaconda. “So tell/your stories and avert your eyes,” the poem concludes, as if to say that seeing is her duty, adding detail to narrative to examine personal myth. She expresses a distinct refusal to “return to pitiless time” from the position above the earth she has held since she was five. From here, her world will be examined, at times against her own will.

            This notion of bearing witness and functioning as storyteller is expanded on to indeed include “a cast of thousands,” the subtitle of the second section. “Anyone can be a messenger./Survival may rely on an extended hand,” 9/11 survivor Usman Farman tells us in the poem inspired by the PBS Documentary.  Nester still gives the sense that perspective is everything. “And what I saw—or think I did,” as she says in the poem aptly title “Witness” expresses her own doubt in determining what is real from what is projection. In “Night Patrol,” her shadow-self sits in a room that exists only at night, “and then only/halfway between/inside and out.” In a kind of Jamesian “Jolly Corner” fashion, she creates a place where identity is born only through encounter with the self, that “alien other” we observe but never engage in dialogue.

            Nester also demonstrates that the notion of where the story takes place is as crucial to perspective as who is relaying the message and who is involved. Memory deserves a palace, however, metaphorical, as she says of a childhood home repeatedly renovated and “multiplied in memory.” Section IV, In the Canyon, a short series of poems that functions almost as an extension of the previous section Location, Location, examines woman’s place in the natural world. Here we find ourselves “where daylight shadow shrinks and hides/and every rock proclaims ‘I am.’”

            The relationship with nature continues as the poet reflects on the juxtaposition of self and other in the section Natural Bonds. This is most profoundly expressed in “Newcomers,” where the “tree of heaven [is] growing spindly/through the sewer grate.”  Internal thoughts and the external world are examined as they relate to one another, the biology of a world going on under watchful eye, unaware of the trespass, or sometimes, like the million beings of “The Pond,” at once “aware,” and “oblivious” of each other.

            In the poem “Autobiography,” the author segues into the celebration of her own history by way of contrast. She is nothing like her home’s previous inhabitant, who removed the faces of his relatives from photos with “the clear desire/to blot out everything.” In Section VI, The Circle, she shows that she is instead astute historian and scribe, paying homage to the now faceless relatives who shaped her: distant cousins, father, grandfather, and grandmother, who, “carries Russia like a loaf,/beneath her arm.”

            Like personal histories, cultural history must also be brought to us through witness. In the section Suspending Belief, Nester shows that the world, with all its unexplained power, is humbling. We are awestruck by the very questions that lack solid answers: “Does choice or chance decide/who they will be, these witnesses?” she asks. The imagery for this very suspension of belief is most acute when the author explores “a world we cannot see,” where “together and alone,” the narrator, fellow meditators, and readers “descend/backward on ladders,” our “restless senses tethered/to a task, we can begin again.” Nester adds a brief section In the Telling, that poses and extension of the discussion on witness to include the medium through which we tell our tales, asking “what does this mean?” in the poem “What Are Poems For?” 

            The last section, Train of Thought, employs the extended metaphor of a vehicle travelling into the world. One of the major themes of the section and the collection as a whole is contained in the trains windows, passengers, even the names of train stops, all serving as metaphor for what carries those of us who are alive and awake with the power of perception, the task of history. Our stories are “likely” because our myths and parables are the fabric of who we are, our images and our truths.