Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill
192 pages / $22.95 buy from Amazon
When I read Michael J. Seidlinger’s list of indie lit for the year I was so excited that I stayed up until three AM all atwitter thinking about it, but for as excited as I am about the alt lit scene, the recent National Book Critics Awards finalists make it clear that the lit world at large lacks the same scope and enthusiasm.
The new Knopf book Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is especially indicative of this endemic lack of innovation and the narrow definition of literary taste that seems to grip the big five publishers. READ MORE >
April 8th, 2014 / 12:00 pm
The Hour of the Star
by Clarice Lispector
New Directions, 2011
128 pages / $12.95 buy from Amazon
The Hour of the Star is about a poor, unattractive Brazilian woman named Macabéa who seems unaware of the doom and misery which (according to the author) characterize her entire existence. Did Lispector know a woman like this? Was Lispector like this when she was young? Was she like this even until her death? Nobody knows. Even if you don’t know anybody like this, you can imagine one, thanks to this book. The miracles of fiction. The glories of speculative mimesis.
Is it conceivable that the thoughts of readers will lead them toward sympathy for women in unenviable circumstances? Yes. Is it conceivable that the thoughts of readers will be unaltered and the book will act more as an acknowledgment of extant attitudes rather than a catalyst for new attitudes? Yes. Is it possible to know which is more likely? I don’t know. Consult the afterword. Compose a letter to the publisher in which you refer to the afterword.
The style will not appear new unless you haven’t read much 20th century literary fiction. Meta-flowage, what-have-you. It is easy to read, unlike some meta-flow-ers. Not that style matters. Style doesn’t matter, because it is indistinguishable from anything else. One can only distinguish things because they have been styled in a distinguishable manner. Therefore, when we talk about style, we only talk about the thing which is styled and nothing else. “Style” therefore might as well be just another word for “thing.” The atoms are gathering themselves back together again and before you know it, we’ll all be psychic skateboarders on mysterious Egyptian vert ramps. Lispector won’t be there. Macabéa might be though.
April 3rd, 2014 / 12:00 pm
by Sam Pink
Lazy Fascist Press, 2014
112 pages / $8.95 buy from Amazon
Witch Piss is the bottom of a forty oz.
Witch Piss is a novel.
Witch Piss is published by Lazy Fascist Press.
Witch Piss is Sam Pink writing about a Sam Pink-like narrator.
Witch Piss is homeless men.
Witch Piss is “Y’gah be kiddin me.”
Witch Piss is a slurry of language.
Witch Piss is written in dialect.
Witch Piss is a man named Spider-Man.
Witch Piss is a girl named Janet in a dirty Depends.
March 25th, 2014 / 12:00 pm
Too Animal, Not Enough Machine: Have You Seen Gretel?
Christine Jessica Margaret Reilly
Sundress Publications, July 2013
46 pages / $10.00 buy from Sundress Publications
Christine Jessica Margaret Reilly’s collection Too Much Animal, Not Enough Machine: Have You Seen Gretel re-imagines the Grimm’s Tale of Hansel and Gretel alongside other mythological characters in new, haunting, and evocative ways. I’m always intrigued by the recasting of myths in contemporary landscapes, as many of our myths are fraught with monsters and madness that intend to expose the horrifyingly hideous rather than teach valuable life lessons. Reilly places Hansel and Gretel in today’s New York City, and her retelling with this backdrop prove itself skillful, chilling, and revitalizing.
While these poems exhibit undeniable darkness, they also weave in humor and highlight problematic societal constructs for children coming of age. In “Gretel Notices the Whale is a Witch or Gretel Notices the Whale Has a Kitchen that Has Not Been Remodeled Since the 70’s,” Reilly outlines a stark critique of gender constructs and the notion of fairy tales serving as moral cautionary tales.
“Gretel smells wolf in the Whale’s hair as she counts the days till she’s free
on her fingers. On the fridge there are magnets of the children who
died of too much fun the Whale explains. But Gretel’s no fool.
Things go down like a pianissimo in her, her body feels too
animal and not enough machine, her throat flaking off
and the room is a fluted boat, a vague sheet
being quilted, seams waning inward like
ribs, but Eat up you’re a growing
girl the whale says with
spiced breath. It’s a
March 11th, 2014 / 10:09 am
Like milk from a cactus tree
Love is pouring around me
I came upon Please Come Home, a collection of poetry by Ethiopian born Guthema Roba, while browsing the stacks of the public library. The discovery was instantly familiar and challenging. In the tradition of ecstatic Sufi, Zen, and Urdu poets, Roba celebrates life in a storm of lyricism.
He trends towards the prescriptive, citing koans, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water,” using poetry as a means of experiencing life.
In “A Poet’s Responsibility,” he writes, “A poet’s responsibility is to awaken/ to remind you of your beauty/ To be the arrow of light/ Pointing at your heart.”
The poetry’s simple imagery often mirror the classic themes of Sufi poetry: dissolution of Ego, unity with the beloved, reverie in life. READ MORE >
February 25th, 2014 / 3:26 pm
by David Wojahn
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011
144 pages / $14.36 buy from Amazon
“The central feature of the human existence is the existence of the unconscious, the existence of a reality of which we are unconscious.”—N.O. Brown
“Poetry, then, is about the extending of human consciousness, making conscious the unconscious, creating a symbolic consciousness that in its finest moments overcomes all the dualities in which the human world is cruelly and eternally, it seems, enmeshed.”—Clayton Eshleman
David Wojahn’s 2011 collection World Tree holds a light to dark stories past and present, expanding new realities from cave walls.
Wojahn looks at places beyond the standard Hollywood or Netflix imagery, (Cystic Fibrosis, ALS, Diabetes, the Anasazi, afterbirth, the foaming sewers of St. Paul, digitized Berryman, green marbles of Cherries in cluster, Helmut province, Houston TX, after Katrina) and with this lot he sounds a white-hot lament. READ MORE >
February 4th, 2014 / 11:09 am
Figures for an Apocalypse
by Edward Mullany
Publishing Genius Press, 2013
198 pages / $14.95 buy from Publishing Genius
Edward Mullany’s newest collection of prose poetry is titled from a book by Thomas Merton. Merton is known for being a Trappist monk and poet, but his poetry receives mixed reviews. In Commonweal, William Henry Shannon lambasts a vast majority of the volumes of Merton’s poetry as “mediocre or just plain bad”; however, Shannon concedes that amongst the thousands of lines of poetry “one will also find fine poetry there.”
In many cases, the mark of fine poetry is to appear effortless—and, perhaps, in some cases craftless. Edward Mullany’s newest poems seem to be nothing more than simple titles with surreal imagery acting as a sort of call and response. Take “The Statues of Weeping Women” for example: “Along empty highways they / were placed at equal / intervals.” That’s the whole poem.
Other pieces in the collection are seemingly plotless, page-length prose poems which simply describe everyday occurrences, as in “The Wrong Child” wherein a girl’s mundane day of school is described in exacting detail:
Or as in “Say No” which starts by saying READ MORE >
January 7th, 2014 / 4:36 pm
by Richard Sala
51 pages / $4.99 Buy from ComiXology
Pacific Rim was my favorite film of 2013 because of its heavy use of science fiction tropes. Guillermo del Toro borrows everything from Neon Genesis Evangelion and G Gundam to Power Rangers and Godzilla. He breathes life into these tropes with innovative concepts like drift compatibility and Lovecraftian aliens from beneath the Pacific. Add in del Toro’s choices to eschew motion capture effects and to cast Charlie Day as the charming and tatted Newt and this film earns a huge place in my heart.
Richard Sala’s Violenzia, his latest digital comic book, operates on a similar level. Sala takes the conventions of Golden Age comics like Dick Tracy and The Shadow and updates them for the digital era. He strips away any true exposition or plot in favor of a taught, fifty-page sequence of action as Violenzia—a hooded vigilante with a shock of magenta hair, twin pistols, and a miniskirt—dispatches members of a moon cult, hillbillies dealing Krokodil, and a ghoulish business exec. duel-wielding a sword and legalese all to get revenge on a nefarious mastermind, and the result is breathtaking.
The book never takes the time to explain who Violenzia is or why she wants to kill the crime boss, but it doesn’t matter. Instead, Violenzia evokes the joy of action comics with lush colors and retro pencilings. READ MORE >
January 2nd, 2014 / 2:23 pm
“All families are something something, lick your knees.” – Count Tolstoy
“The same phenomenon that makes the family so intolerable when you are young is precisely what makes it so fascinating when you are old: that concentraion of karma, old memory, and skeletons in the cupboard”– Suzanne Brøgger, The Jade Cat
The Jade Cat, by Danish author Suzanne Brøgger, follows the fortunes of the Løvin family (cosmopolitan Danish Jews) through the course of the 20th century.
Brøgger trades in melancholia, that old reliable bread and butter of Modernist anxiety. And like many great Émigré writers (Nabokov, Dolatov, Mukherjee, Gallant), she populates the novel with fetishes and talismen. Émigré literature trends towards interiors, landscapes of symbolic expression, in an attempt to recreate homeland or conjure the physicality of a lost homeland, and Brøgger nails the inventories of a family trying to hold onto something tangible. READ MORE >
October 24th, 2013 / 11:32 am
The Desert Places
by Amber Sparks and Robert Kloss, illustrated by Matt Kish
Curbside Splendor Publishing, 2013
84 pages / $10.60 buy from Amazon
Evil is ubiquitous. It’s in the best literature and (as I present it to my students) it is the reason why humanity needs literature: as relief from evil and as elucidation for evil. The Desert Places, the new hybrid text by Amber Sparks and Robert Kloss, with illustrations by Matt Kish, depicts the history of malevolence from primordial Earth all the way into a nightmarish technological future. Plenty of other narratives have depicted the fall and subsequent struggle of Lucifer, Chamcha, Grendel, et al., but what sets Sparks’s and Kloss’s narrative apart is its broad scope within such a slim package. READ MORE >
October 17th, 2013 / 6:06 pm
To Sandra Simonds,
This is an open letter in response to your request that the Poetry Foundation make a strong financial commitment to aid poets facing financial crises and a lack of adequate healthcare.
You say in your open letter that “it is heartbreaking when poets you have admired for years are forced to ask for help with basic necessities,” and I wonder how this is any more heartbreaking than the millions of other Americans struggling financially to make ends meet. How do the struggles of everyday Americans differ, and to what degree, from those problems faced by the poetry community? As poets, we make a decision at some point or another to devote as much of our life to our craft as possible. In doing so, we must acknowledge that to identify as a poet (or artist in general) is a privilege in and of itself; one that comes at certain costs. Primarily, a life of potential financial hardship. But I ask you, Sandra, what American today does not face similar uncertainties facing their financial future?
The difference between poets and the general public is that some of us, like you, Sandra, are fortunate enough to have an audience and a platform to reach them. In today’s rocky economic climate, one governed by debt and political deficit, I do not think it is in the best interest of your audience or the poetry community to model such irresponsible behavior in asking for a financial handout from the Poetry Foundation to support the poets you hold in such romanticized esteem. Poets are people just like everyone else, Sandra. Suggesting that poets deserve compensation simply for the fact of being a poet is insulting, and furthers our reputation for being elitist and disconnected. As a community, I would hope that we had a little more gumption to solve our financial predicament rather than taking the easy route by asking the Poetry Foundation for a handout. I support poets by buying their books. Maybe we, as a community, can figure out how to get our art to a wider audience before we so hastily throw in the towel. READ MORE >
October 15th, 2013 / 8:18 am
by Danilo Kiš
Dalkey Archive Press, 2012
128 pages / $16.95 buy from Dalkey Archive Press
“The work of Danilo Kiš preserves the honor of literature.”
In his Psalm 44, Danilo Kiš offers something beautiful and immediately important. The novel, set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, confronts deep tragedy.
As a writer, Kiš trends expansive, with long lyrical passages:
“She remembered the return from the village, and her perplexity at not traveling by train (the way they had come) and only then by cart through the fields of rye and poppies, but they covered the whole distance back in a cart, moving continuously alongside the tracks with their thundering haughty trains, and she loved travel by train, as did her mother, who had told her she had loved to travel by train, but just now she said she preferred to lurch along the bumpy village lanes, where there isn’t any way to shield your head and so the sun strikes you directly on the pate, right on the crown of your skull. Then they reached the city and Marija said to her mother that she’d had more than enough of this cart and that she would at least like to ride the streetcar at this pint, to ride the blue one that went from the train station straight to the corner of their street where the chestnut blossoms were…”
September 3rd, 2013 / 6:57 pm
Marcus Speh explores the tender side of absurdity with Thank You for Your Sperm. Though this is flash fiction it lingers in the mind for much longer. Entire histories are suggested in these small pieces. Not a word is wasted either. From the title to the last line Marcus Speh uses language economically. Words playfully jump across the page opening entirely new histories within histories. Geography is a key part of these stories as geography too can suggest a mood with a simple word or two. Berlin specifically gets rather affectionate treatment. How all of this comes together is quite impressive. READ MORE >
August 8th, 2013 / 12:10 pm
Bornholm Night-Ferry wades through inscrutable regions of a long distance relationship. Aidan Higgins is at turns wistful and heartbreaking as he chronicles this classic “end of an affair” novel.
The novel’s organizing device comes in letters between two lovers separated by a continent—one living in Ireland, the other in the Netherlands—as they flirt, cajole, complain, and desperately attempt to hold onto a brief romance. As a sweet and sad book, the novel explores well-tread ground. First published in 1983, it often recalls Annie Hall and Hopscotch in tone and aesthetic. The lovers pun and namedrop in a pseudo-gliglish patois. Larry Rivers is a central character. READ MORE >
August 1st, 2013 / 3:17 pm
In a space of punishing violence, in a realm where black is light, Blackest Ever Hole exists as a crossing of the abyss to temper horror into poetry. This is where “the steepest vertigo pulses,” where volatile suns implode under the weight of shadows. Black is the color of annihilation, and annihilation here breeds horror. These are Plutonian visions that go beneath our planetary crust and deep into the place of the beast. In this vortex of horror lies the human shadow eager for integration, and I’m specifically impressed with O’Blivion’s use of genre as a lens of perception through which his awareness is filtered. This is a journey through the infernal abyss of the blackest black to “a total terror death.” READ MORE >
July 18th, 2013 / 2:53 pm
When Kerosene’s Involved
by Daniel Romo
Black Coffee Press, 2013
100 pages / $12.95 buy from Amazon
Confession: I bought this book because the cover is pretty rad. I don’t even know how I came across the book, but I’m glad I did. The poems in here, as the title and cover suggest, are bundles of fire. Upon reading, the embers blaze into your guts and you are left a charred individual. Romo skillfully blends fantasy and narrative, pop culture and persona poems, while adhering to the integrity of the prose poem. Make no mistake: THESE are “prose” “poems.” They are not glorified flash-fiction incorrectly labeled as prose poetry, as much writing is today. The poetry in the book is first, foremost, and evident. Take the book’s first lines from the first poem, “Singe.”
Grandpa Manuel burned the beaks of chicks. Scooped them up in his rancher hands and played agricultural matchmaker: searing metal kissing their tiny mouths.
July 9th, 2013 / 12:09 pm
The Kickstarter campaign for Todd Dills’s new book asks participants to “fund the printing of this book of 14 collected short stories, from literary New South yarn to end-of-days dirge.” This got me thinking about the New South.
My hometown is frequently called “the Gateway to the New South,” but what does that mean? Is it an effort to banish stereotypes of the decidedly racist and agrarian past? The term “New South” brings to my mind a group of self-indulgent, cultured men and women—the type that have subscribed to Oxford American for 15+ years, who have serious opinions about barbecue and shrimp and grits, and who have read every William Gay and Cormac McCarthy novel twice through, but have never given Joy Williams more than a lingering glance. Could this stereotype form the criterion for Southern citizenship as well? If so, even I, a second generation Tennesseean, fail the test. READ MORE >
June 25th, 2013 / 1:02 pm
My Pet Serial Killer
by Michael Seidlinger
Enigmatic Ink, 2013
316 pages / $13.99 buy from Amazon
My Pet Serial Killer is an honest look at relationships. Yes it may be surprising that it took a main character that disembowels unsuspecting women to explore the power dynamic that exists between any two people in a relationship. That’s just how Seidlinger operates. Seidlinger is the sickest of the fucks. Few can compare. What’s doubly refreshing, though, is exactly what is left in and out of the book. Occasional gory details make their way through the passages (how a person tastes like cinnamon, etc.) but the main focus is the relationship between the killer (Victor) and the observer (Claire). READ MORE >
January 17th, 2013 / 1:00 pm
2500 Random Things About Me Too
by Matias Viegener
Les Figues Press, 2012
246 pages / $15.00 buy from Les Figues Press
For us it is so normal to see the clouds from above, and inside.
– section xxxix, line 12
By extrapolating the popular Facebook meme, 25 Random things about me, duration generates gravity in Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me Too (Les Figues Press, 2012), blowing aloft a cloud of identity–a portrait of the artist’s wandering consciousness. Viegner’s sequence of anecdotal strands, aphorisms, autobiographical trills, and questions both large and small are keenly paced; fragments hang alone indefinitely while others pick back up a few lines down or pages away, forming themes that resonate in opp- and apposition throughout the work. This deceptively loose push-and-pull provides much of the work’s excitement as associations spark, link with others and hover or hang solitary and pleasantly naked.
Here’s an example from the text, titular and relatively contained:
October 10th, 2012 / 1:09 pm