Janice Lee


Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, May 2011) & Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013). She currently lives in Los Angeles where she teaches at CalArts and is co-editor of [out of nothing] and Founder/CEO of POTG Design.

Are you ready for #AWP14?


Sick with Anxiety: On Ben Marcus’s Leaving the Sea

9780307379382Leaving the Sea
by Ben Marcus
Knopf, January 2014
288 pages / $25.95  Buy from Amazon






“I’d been thinking for years about language as a toxic substance,” said Ben Marcus in a 2011 interview with HTML Giant.  “Language itself making people sick.  Speech and text, all of it poisonous.”

He continued, “I seem to write about language a lot. Language as a physical substance with deviant powers:  a powder, a drug, a wind, a medicine. I can’t really help it.”

Ben Marcus is obsessed with language on a sort of sadomasochistic bent. Consider this invective:  “In English, no matter what you said, you sounded like a coddled human mascot with a giant head asking to have his wiener petted…”

And, “English, in which every word was a spoiled complaint, a bit of pouting…”

And, “…a whiner’s tongue.”

And, “At least overseas he didn’t speak much English.”

And, “….he spat his useless English.”

All of these are taken from Leaving the Sea, the new collection of short stories from Marcus, who is bound and determined as ever to make us sick with language. Leaving the Sea is divided into six sections on loose formal and philosophical grounds, and in loose order of obscurity and opacity.

The collection begins safely, with Marcus’s most accessible work, although there isn’t much in the way of traditional resolution even here. The key to any good relationship, the writer/reader one included, is a managing of expectations, and nowhere in even his most outwardly inviting writing does Marcus hint at anything that suggests closure and a case of the warm-and-fuzzies.

Another consistency: Marcus’s characters are consistently on the wrong side of power balances, often for reasons unclear. The opening story, “What Have You Done?” features a protagonist who has returned “home” for a family reunion of sorts, only be shunned and vilified by a family that seems equally bemused by and afraid of him. We see hints of an “old Paul” boiling over throughout the story, but the title of the story remains a taunt, as we never quite find out what Paul did. (To consider this a spoiler, by the way, is to miss the point of Marcus’s writing, which can be very much like tantric sex sans orgasm. I mean that in a good way.)

The characters we meet in Leaving the Sea are often achingly sad, borderline alexithymic, and resigned to a fate over which they have no control. Despite the harsh sense of determinism, Marcus’s characters all seem to feebly make attempts to control what little they can. Fleming in “I Can Say Many Nice Things” is a serious writer forced to lead a creative writing seminar aboard a cruise ship for financial reasons while trying to resist the temptation of an affair with an enthusiastic student as a small act of mitigation against his bitter wife back home.

In “The Dark Arts”, Julian fends off nighttime invaders in a Düsseldorf hostel while undergoing experimental treatments for a rare immune disease — an “allergy to my own blood”, he calls it — all the while waiting for his girlfriend, who has yet to arrive from France after a lover’s quarrel. When she does materialize, cold and aloof, we’re left wondering if Julian might have been better alone, a thought not lost on him. “Had anyone,” Julian wonders at one point, “ever studied the biology of being seen? The ravaging, the way it literally burned when you fetched up in someone’s sight line and they took aim at you with their minds?”

If it is a subterranean discomfort the reader feels in the first three stories, the last of Part One, “Rollingwood,” carries it to full nausea. Mather is the father of a sickly child, afalter in every aspect of life, and seemingly unable to summon the strength to fight back against an ex-wife and a potentate boss who appear supercilious towards his continued being, particularly when his usefulness runs out. What transpires leaves the reader feeling gutted, somehow disappointed to the point of sickness, although one could hardly call it a visceral story. The language is plain, inviting even, but weighted with sadness.

Part Two consists of a series of interviews with a series of cultural tastemakers/gurus who believe they hold the key to a happier life by way of shunning the adult world. One, in a not-so-subtle allusion, believes that perhaps we’d all be better off in a cave, though this one has no light by which to project any shadows at all.

Parents — and more specifically, the child’s Stockholm-syndrome-like sense of duty towards them — dominate Part Three, which is comprised of two stories. The first is a meditative essay by a man who wonders for the length of the story how his actions or inactions might hasten or delay the death of his mother. The story is rife with a sort of realistic morbidity, particularly in the passages that describe different scenarios in which the mother’s body might be found, and after how long. The second story of Part Three, “The Loyalty Protocol”, takes place in another of Marcus’s miasmatic hinterlands between our world and a bleak alternate reality. During a series of drills for an unspecified threat, Eddie must choose whether or not to break rank and bring his senescent parents along, who have not been called to the rendezvous point.

Part Four is comprised of a single story, “The Father Costume”, which is particularly unsettling in not only its bizarre, arcane imagery, but in its ever-shifting set of linguistic paradigms, with characters all seeming to speak a different language and there being no real common phrasing to latch on to, ensuring the reader never has a complete grasp on the world Marcus has created. (The story, it should be noted, would appear to be a reworking of a 2002 book of the same title by Marcus and fellow author Matthew Ritchie.)

It’s often hard for a reader to determine whether a writer is challenging them, or just fucking with them, and the queasy feeling one gets through this story makes it either one to deep read or skip altogether, depending on your predilections as a reader. All the same, it seems like just the sort of story Marcus had in mind when he said, in the same interview:

“In the end I want to write things that I don’t know how to write, because this seems to command the most energy and desire and attention from me.  It makes me sort of sick with anxiety.  When I’m uncomfortable and confused and curious I tend to try much harder to figure things out.”

The language games continue in Part Five with a set of stories that seem aimed at putting the mundane into new dialectical contexts. “First Love” is a stumbling attempt by a nameless narrator to frame his amorous attempts in a language we might understand, even taking the time to tell us, “The word body used to refer to the evidence left behind that someone has died.” As with many of his stories, Marcus refuses to tell us whether the “used to” here implies a futuristic world, or merely the shattering of an individuals that renders language, at least in the objective sense, largely moot, a la Kate in Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Each story of this section poses that same question, as family life and relationships and lovemaking are all forced through the cracked lens of Marcus’s devising.


1 Comment
February 24th, 2014 / 11:00 am


Savage 1986-2011 by Nathaniel G. Moore

savageSavage 1986-2011
by Nathaniel G. Moore
Anvil Press, 2013
256 pages / $20  Buy from Amazon







“If I had to write a will, it would only fill a matchbox flap. But a self-involved snuff letter would occupy months of effort, filling thousands of Bristol board sheets on both sides: the meticulous marinating of my family’s kamikaze descent.” With these tattered lines Nathaniel G. Moore takes us on an exhilarating tour of life in the strangest, coldest, and most depressing of families, set in the city that recently brought the world Rob Ford, packaged (according to Wikipedia) as a New Order box set. (Note: each chapter save for the prologue is named after a song by the post-punk electro band).

Set between the summer of 1986 and the late spring of 2011, the book unevenly chronicles, with an honest treatment, the rise and fall and (attempt at reuniting) a middle-class family from the suburb of Leaside in Toronto.

When Nate, a messy, lusty, mouthy yet anxious kid turns twelve years old, his father takes him to a wrestling match where he sees Randy “Macho Man” Savage live for the first time. (It should be noted that at the match, Nate is a fan of Ricky Steamboat and wants Macho Man to lose. This attitude towards the titular wrestler of course changes drastically in short order.)

Early on, the teenage fumbling of Nate and a friend named Andrew turn into a suggestive game of power and what appears to be, an area of interactions between exploration and abuse or a hazing. Yet their friendship seems to be the only non-family, non-fantasy thing in Nate’s life. At one point in grade nine, the narrator says, “Andrew was quickly becoming my whole world.”

Another factor contributing to Nate’s fear of isolation is the departure of his older sister Holly to university. As Nate says goodbye to the nineteen eighties and its Kodacrom of idyllic summer bike rides, swimming pools and erections, the nineties comes in with a bang of economic woes, family blows and dying grandparents. Holly’s returns on weekends are fuzzy, hungover interactions that play out in tender vignettes between slowly estranging siblings.

When Nate’s maternal grandmother dies during his last year of high school, his nostalgia kicks in at high gear the day of the funeral. “I urged everyone to watch the last known footage of Grammy, at which Uncle Carl waved me away, suggesting it wasn’t the time. That was it: she was gone.”

While Nate conjures up wrestling fantasies to portray his intense friendship with Andrew, the fantasy is not reciprocated, tolerated or understood. Soon Andrew withdraws from interacting with Nate, leaving him in the throes of conflict with an abusive father, a nervous mother and barely-there older sister. Just when things couldn’t get any weirder for Nate, his father loses his insurance job and begins working at a funeral home owned by Andrew’s father. For the next couple of years Nate and his father feud and fight in a series of two or three punch fights, including a grotesque display of callous behavior on both father and son during a family visit to Aunt Rebecca’s house. After mouthing off about keeping Nate’s mom out of the financial picture should she ask for a divorce, Nate begins to cry and retreats to the car outside where he fumbles for a cigarette. When his father goes to check on him, Nate loses it. “How could you say that about Mom you piece of shit!” Nate shouts with tears before pulling his father out of the car, throwing him into the snow and kicking him in the stomach.

Within a year of the incident, Nate’s fears come to fruition and his parent’s divorce. Nate spends years couch-surfing, pill-popping, a drug overdose, all the while trying his best to get back into University. The vitriolic charges portrayed in letters and voice messages sent to family members demonstrates the drama going on in the protagonists head and also draws on an element of wrestling subculture: the shoot interview style, which of course I put together when later in the book we discover that Nate’s knowledge of wrestling as a teen leads to a part-time job at a media website. A wrestling shoot interview is a popular form of video interviews ex-wrestlers does to tell their side of an infamous wrestling storyline or backstage drama. There are literally hundreds of them on Youtube. The later half of the book acts as a rerun of Nate’s unraveling, reliving the pain of growing up, the rejection of his parents and his years “pilled out of my mind”.

The prose are at times detached, poetic and marred by emotional analysis. Footnotes add to the tell-all feel the novel oozes with, and accompanying artwork by Andrea Bennett and Vicki Nerino give the book a sickly sweet aesthetic.

With its multiplicity of domestic settings and kaleidoscopic mix of wrestlers, Christians, truth, evil, George Michael, masturbation, sibling rivalry, the mental health system in Canada, New Order, eventual redemption, Savage 1986-2011 is a memorable memoir packaged as a novel, not to be read by candle light too close to your own family’s powder keg of secrets.


Jenny Simpson is a poet and visual artist living in Edmonton, Canada.

1 Comment
February 24th, 2014 / 11:00 am


1914 and the Madcap Cinema of Jean Echenoz

1900.cover1914: A Novel
by Jean Echenoz
The New Press, January 2014
128 pages / $14.95  Buy from The New Press or Amazon






In 1914, out this January from The New Press, Jean Echenoz turns his distinctive wit on France in the early days of the First World War. Hailed as one of the great writer’s of his generation (the so-called nouveau nouveau roman cohort of the 1980’s) Echenoz is relentless in his humor and in his antiwar message. He delivers this message through one of his favorite techniques: film parody.

Echenoz has always engaged the themes and aesthetics of cinema. His adventure novels Cherokee, Double Jeopardy, and I’m Gone, are all heavily indebted to the films of Jean Pierre Melville and Claude Chabrol. Crime tropes are consistently employed and subverted: adversaries are bound and gagged in repeated reversals of fortunes, mysterious briefcases prompt brutal killings, identical twins are separated at birth and reunited in civil wars, gun runners turn political idealists. In I’m Gone, a character complains:

“And besides… your whole deal is so cliché. They kill people like this in every TV movie in the world, there’s nothing original about it at all.”… “I don’t disagree,” Baumgartner allows, “but I admit to being influenced by TV movies. TV movies are an art form like any other.”

According to Liam Callanan of The New York Times, “Echenoz delights in savaging mass media clichés like television docudramas or action-adventure movies… dispatching them with gleeful siliness.” His 1997 Big Blondes imagines the production of a documentary film charting the history of blondes in cinema from Dietrich to Bardot. Echenoz usually favors 60s crime cinema in his novels, including entire scenes from Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, and Some Came Running (1958) with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley Maclaine.

In Big Blondes, Echenoz obsesses over Le Mepris Bardot

In Big Blondes, Echenoz obsesses over Le Mepris Bardot

Echenoz co-opts entire scenes from Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson

Echenoz co-opts entire scenes from Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson

He shows a soft spot for the Rat Pack, giving Dean Martin a speaking role in Piano. Image from Some Came Running

He shows a soft spot for the Rat Pack, giving Dean Martin a speaking role in Piano. Image from Some Came Running

If these previous novels engage 60s noir, 1914 is certainly an homage to the antiwar farce.

He sets the stage in 1914, with his singular ear for period detail. As in several of his earlier novel’s (Ravel, Running, and Lightning) 1914 comes off as matter-of-fact historical fiction.


No Comments
February 21st, 2014 / 10:00 am

Tammy: Call For Submissions

Screen shot 2014-02-20 at 10.08.35 PM*Tammy is a print publication that features poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism from the esteemed fringes and unguarded egresses of American letters, international writing in translation, and forms of visual art and poetics that lend themselves to the printed page. The third issue has just arrived and the editors are now reading for the fourth issue. Visit www.tammyjournal.com for more information.

Random / No Comments
February 21st, 2014 / 2:09 am

Interview with Marek Waldorf

Braver than most, Marek Waldorf has dared to spin literature out of the terrifying realm of political speechwriting. His debut novel, The Short Fall (Turtle Point Press), follows a speechwriter for a presidential campaign who has been left disabled after a botched attempt on the nominee’s life. In dense, lyrical prose, the narrator explores the campaign from its nascent form to the disastrous present, winding in and out of events as they lead his body to cross paths with the assassin’s bullet. If you think you’re up for a Bernhard-style treatment of American political rhetoric and its relationship to authenticity, idealism, and image making, then look no further. Marek was kind enough to answer some questions for HTMLGIANT via email.



Hal Hlavinka: In your professional life, you write grants for nonprofits like Girls Write Now. I’m interested in how your day-to-day contact with bureaucratese informed the lexical and logical frameworks of The Short Fall. More specifically, as the speechwriter’s paranoia unfolds, we start to read all sorts of fragmentary beliefs about the relationship between language and charisma, politics and fundraising, and I wonder to what degree these connections are carved from your day job.

Marek Waldorf: Grantwriting’s unusual in that you’re writing for a literally captive audience. Foundation officers are paid to read what you’re paid to write, allowing more freedom to be boring than, say, speechwriting or marketing.  The latter I have very little understanding of.  To be honest, I hadn’t moved into fundraising when writing The Short Fall—I was still a temp.  But does the job involve more linguistic depletion than other writing professions?  I don’t think we do too much damage: at one funder’s meeting I recently attended, grant applicants were encouraged to “step free of the jargon zone.” I’ll travel in & out of the zone fairly regularly, but I’m also—maybe more—interested in the infantilizing uses of language.

And TSF is less an immersion in bureaucratese than a recounting—a very long thought-balloon—of how people function within such immersion: the self-justifications, pretty stories, petty (&-not-so) delusions.  There’s a recurring joke in TSF—particularly, section two—where the speechwriter spends pages explaining his craft & straining mightily on the pot of composition all in the service of (for instance) “A new day is rising in America.”  Or let’s just say—one man’s unique susceptibility to language & its gaming.

HH: At your reading in Chicago, you mentioned that part of your strategy for writing The Short Fall, at least in the beginning, was to explore the narrator’s voice inside a dense, elliptical framework in the style of Thomas Bernhard. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges and benefits of using Bernhard’s notoriously demanding narrative aesthetic as a guide?

MW: Bernhard’s The Lime Works was a driving influence for sure—his books sort of cocoon the period of TSF’s writing.  And, yes, I’ve often wondered about your well-taken second point.  I worried Bernhard’s aesthetic wasn’t something you dabble in, that it demanded a lifelong engagement, but—fortunately for the book—I was chafing as well, right from the start.  While there’s a show-off quality, an exuberance, to Bernhard’s style, it’s not one he conjures up at the level of “turning a phrase.”  Whereas I can’t help myself.   Two books I read during that period—Nicholson Baker’s U & I and Alexander Theroux’s An Adultery—seemed like masterful and disrespectful negotiations of that aesthetic (as is, I believe, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be).  To see distinctive work occupying the same ground that wasn’t pastiche—resemblances surfacing almost as matters of temperament—was reassuring.  Of course TSF is also pulling hard in the direction of the American maximalist novel of disintegration. The politics, the stamp of its ambition, the presiding question of authenticity—all contrive to keep it on native soil.

HH: You began writing the novel in the nineties, only to finish it over a decade and two presidencies later. To what extent did your writing change—first with the Lewinsky scandal, followed by the disastrous Bush tenures, and finally the bittersweet state of the Obama administration—as the office and image of the POTUS has changed?

MW: I had TSF pretty much finished by 1995, so it is interesting to see what’s changed since I wrote the book, and what’s stayed the same, given the 20-year gap. The Society of Victims, for example, started life as a pun-laden left jab—watching it metastatize within the real world vs. the book has been interesting. And the emphasis on a politics of infantilization worked out well it seems … witness our progression to ubiquitous bathroom-acronyms like POTUS & SCOTUS!  I’ll say this about political and science fiction, having attempted both—prescience ranks among their highest virtues.  But mostly I feel the oddness of returning to something written by a much younger me.  Its youthfulness detains me, and when I write about it now, I feel a bit like an impostor.

My hope at the time was TSF would welcome a certain type of reader, which wouldn’t necessarily track to how s/he voted.  I’m not sure I succeeded entirely, but I believe the pressure of that instinct—to abstract out of partisan politics—was helpful.  In retrospect, the Clintonian triangulating which led many of my peers to cynical despair &/or a vote for Nader feels like TSF’s operational baseline.  The politics of encroachment-from-the-middle isn’t what’s happening now—Bush certainly changed that—but it’s due for a comeback, I imagine, and it doesn’t matter for the book, because the narrator has burrowed so deep into the campaign he doesn’t see Vance as up against anybody—only chance—and the idea of an alternative arises in terms of rhetorical tactics … as deployment, a trick.  My aim in all this wasn’t ambiguity so much as an absence, like everything else below the neck the speechwriter can’t move or feel.  Like SCOTUS, he’s all head.


Author Spotlight / 2 Comments
February 17th, 2014 / 11:00 am


Innovation by Carl Chudyk

Innovation coverInnovation
by Carl Chudyk
Asmadi Games, 2010
$25  Buy from Amazon or Asmadi Games or try online at Isotropic




Writing [Blue/Age 1/Bulb]: Draw a 2.

It doesn’t look like much on its own, but that small amount of information tells you everything you need to know about one of the most monumental achievements in human history. It’s just one example of 105 concepts and technologies represented in Carl Chudyk’s clever (and occasionally revelatory) minimalistic card game Innovation.

Innovation setup

(the suggested game setup)

Of course, being as it is an exploration of the march of human progress from Prehistory through the Information Age, Innovation is minimalistic only on its surface. The goal of the game, reduced to its simplest format, is to harness these advancing concepts to steer your culture (represented by a tableau of cards in front of you) toward monumental achievements—specifically, more and faster achievements than the other players. Ideas from The Wheel to The Internet are represented by the intersection, on a single card, of four very simple elements: a color (one of five, which might be thought of as the card’s suit); a value (the age, 1-10, that the invention hails from); a “dogma” effect, which can be called upon once the card has been “melded,” or put into play; and three icons, of one or more of 8 types, arranged around the bottom-left borders of the card like a supine L.

In play, the clipart-style icons and mostly solid colors make Innovation redolent of a child’s educational toy. From the outside, that is. In play—that is, to those actually experiencing the game—Innovation‘s minimalistic trappings hide a maximalistic struggle as epic as history itself.

WritingLet’s take another look at Writing, for example. It’s an Age 1, or Prehistoric, technology. During setup, stacks representing all 10 Ages of history, each holding roughly 10 cards, are arranged in order. All players begin in Age 1, and can only begin drawing cards from the later ages once the Age 1 draw pile is depleted or if they have melded (added to their tableau) a technology from a later age. Since cards from later ages are almost universally more valuable than earlier ones, this makes that simple Writing technology, whose only effect is “Draw a 2″, the key to unlocking a host of strategic choices for the lucky player who draws it early in the game. While the other players are stuck in the Stone Age, discovering important but rudimentary technologies like Sailing, Pottery and Domestication, you can be drawing Age 2 (Classical era) technologies such as Mapmaking, Currency and Mathematics.

And once you have Mathematics in hand…oh, the places you’ll go then. Like Writing, Mathematics is a blue card with 2 bulb icons and 1 crown icon. Unlike Writing, it is an Age 2 technology, which means that as soon as it’s melded into your culture, you can draw from the Classical era’s suite of concepts even without Writing’s culture-advancing abilities. In fact, you couldn’t use Writing anymore if you wanted to; when you put Mathematic into play, you placed it on top of a stack of all other technologies of the same color you had previously discovered, burying them and making their dogma effect unusable. You could say that the advent of Mathematics pushed Writing out of the limelight. It’s still a part of your culture, but for now, its effects are dormant.


That doesn’t matter, though, because Mathematics’ dogma effect is even more powerful than Writing’s. It reads: “You may return a card from your hand. If you do, draw and meld a card of value one higher than the card you returned.” Again, this might not look like much at first. But let’s not forget the reason you melded Mathematics in the first place: you always get to draw from the age matching the highest-value card (determined by the card’s Age) in your culture. So you can use Mathematics to discard another Age 2 technology, like Monotheism (who needs religious mystery in the age of rationalism?) and replace it with something from Age 3 (the Medieval era)—say, Engineering. On your next turn, you can draw a new Medieval card, then immediately exchange it for something from Age 4, the Renaissance. And you can keep doing this to rocket through the ages, one turn at a time, discovering Banking and Refrigeration and Quantum Theory while your rivals are still puzzling out Road Building.

Tread cautiously, though. While early technologies are slow but stable, later technologies can be volatile. Even Writing, while it doesn’t provide the same rocket boost as Mathematics, has the advantage of being somewhat more contemplative and circumspect. With Mathematics, you must meld the card that you drew, even if it buries another technology you would rather have. Writing is slower, but it allows you to examine and judge for yourself exactly how and when to put your ideas into action.


February 17th, 2014 / 11:00 am


Short Edited by Alan Ziegler

ShortShort: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms
Edited by Alan Ziegler
Persea Books
354 pages / $16.95  Buy from Amazon






I realize now that the only thing you can do with any anthology is take issue with it: who was included, who wasn’t, what order they’re in, why there’s more x than y. But before I step into the trenches, I want to note right off the bat that Short is an important and impressive document. It comes at a time when the short form, especially in its incarnation as “hybrid genre,” is gaining traction both in indie and (to a lesser extent) mainstream circles. I need not list presses like Tarpaulin Sky and Rose Metal Press; authors as different as Lydia Davis and Amelia Gray; lit mags like NANO Fiction and Gigantic. And that’s just a very small, very indie cross-section. Hell, Sentence already lived a full life and closed its doors.

Point is, I shouldn’t have to convince you that understanding the evolution of very short prose is an important project for the contemporary literary landscape. And it seems that Alan Ziegler, editor of Short, is the right man for the job. On his resume, besides his own books of “tales” and “takes,” is having taught Short Prose Forms at Columbia since 1989. That’s a long time.

Of course, here’s where the bones-to-pick start coming in. Ziegler’s definition of “short” is a little different from what mine might be: 1,250 words is his limit, which allows writing up to four pages to make it into Short. I can’t help but think that some of the pieces at the upper limit of this mark—Donald Barthelme’s happily tooting “The King of Jazz,” for example—cease to be short a few hundred words before their end.

If I was looking to criticize, I might take issue with the treatment of the pieces too: they’re printed one after another, with almost no whitespace. I understand that this is a logistical measure, and the anthology couldn’t house nearly the number of pieces it does if each piece were given its own page. Still, the purist in me argues that fewer, better-presented pieces would be more effectual than more works, smashed into the same space. Such a large part of reading very short prose is having the visual space to consider it after its textual work is done; reading Short is a little like reading Shakespeare in one of those two-column tiny-print Collected Works volumes.

Then again, such are the casualties of reading an anthology cover-to-cover. Those shorts which originally appeared in a full book of such pieces appear bizarre and sort of hamstrung out of their context. Amelia Gray’s, for example, the last one in the anthology, doesn’t carry nearly the pleasure as when you read it in the context of AM/PM as a whole. “Remain Healthy All Day,” it begins, before its laundry list of odd directives. If we didn’t know better, we might think she was being glib. But in the original, wonderful edition from featherproof, we’ve already begun the everyday tragedies of our friends Terrence and Charles and see, through their eyes, the direness of being asked to “Use a warm towel to dry the cat.”

This strange, decontextualized nature of the anthology might partially be remedied, I thought, by changing the order of the pieces. Ziegler orders them according to the birthdate of their authors; we start at Girolamo Cardano’s “Those Things in Which I Take Pleasure” (1501) and end with Gray. The shorts take on an often similar thrust to those with which they are surrounded, then. The beginning is full of fairly staid ruminations, which pick up speed as we pass through Poe and Baudelaire and reach a cruising altitude more amenable to the contemporary palate with writers born after 1925, to whom the second half of the book is devoted. I appreciated the alternative jaunt through literary history but perhaps, I wondered, the crowdedness of this volume might be better suited to a random sequence—by first initial of last name, for example. Then the close juxtaposition of pieces, instead of being tiresome and chronological, might be fortuitous and on any given page point to a sort of conversation across the ages. What an artistic concept! All of them in a room together!


No Comments
February 14th, 2014 / 10:00 am


HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? by Laura Warman

2527139_origHow Much Does it Cost?
By Laura Warman
Cars Are Real, Oct 2013
82 Pages/ $15  Print or Free PDF. Purchase from SPD or download from Cars Are Real







I see Gen Y not just as a challenge, therefore,
but as a great opportunity We all shop
at Target but who is Mr. Target

Some readers will be tempted in the critical fervor of postmodern analysis to read into Laura Warman’s dry observations and blog-inspired style a derisive mockery of “Gen Y”.  But HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?  is not an indictment of the same internet culture from which it derives; it’s an embrace. These poems are not mocking the digital age. They are experiencing it. Warman writes “the only place left to cry is the Ross Park Mall”. Here, comedy is an element of sincerity. This—along with lines like “Money is the closest thing to poetry”—sets up havens of capitalism as the only places we can dispose of interpretive frameworks, thus allowing for experiences and feelings without analysis. We are enlightened enough that capitalism (which has a single end goal) is clear, giving the mall a purity which allows us to acknowledge ourselves as we are, simply, without a need to be coated in layers of metaphor and superfluous intellect.

This, of course, can lead us to sounding stupid. Confronting our actual thoughts, without window dressing, is something Warman does frequently. One of her poems:


The most alluring thing about Warman’s poetry is that a learned person so consistently being honest sounds like a learned person trying to be funny (and it is funny!). Warman goes a long way to force intellectualism out from behind walls of carefully gathered thoughts meant to represent a person’s lived relation to the world. Concerns like drone warfare, alienation from labor, and feminism are intermingled with the same language that revels in text messages and Kim Kardashian.

Warman has her own walls. Some poems pre-empt criticism through tongue-in-cheek statements that give clear and self-aware observations of her tricks, tools, and failings, letting her write things like “there, now you can’t criticize me”. It’s a facetious move that makes the best of her poems harder to engage with. It’s the double-edge of a predictive wit; both veiled humor and directness, it leaves us amused but unsure. For all the assurance that her writing is not an affect—an obsession with the Kardashians and the mall enmeshed with political and cultural concerns—HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?is sometimes too funny and aware to seem anything but.

The ancient Greek skeptics used a laxative analogy to explain their use of philosophy. For them, philosophy, like all laxatives, causes itself and everything below it to be excreted, leaving a space for something new (or nothing at all). This, I think, is the power of HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?. Warman engages honestly with her connections to media, sex, corporations, labor, and day-to-day trivialities. She writes “there is nothing left but 705 channels” not with mockery but with dry precision—it disarms us, lets us experience the channels because there’s nothing else. By adopting the digital age sincerely as philosophy we are rid of a need to self-reflexively step back from our lived experience, thus giving us space to engage with it fully. HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? uses this experience as laxative, letting it pass through us, pushing down old frameworks of understanding and leaving space for something new. This makes it a book not only topical and entertaining, but radical.

I asked Laura Warman to respond to this review, paying particular attention to my critique of her sometimes defensive or affected writing style. Her reply follows.


LW: I put up walls for protection says each person when their dishonesty is revealed. But, maybe dishonesty is the new radical honesty. The more honest we are the more our thinking is compartmentalized, bought, and sold. The more dishonest I am, the more walls I put up, the less I am known and the more power I have to meditatively enclose myself in the mall, the car, the bedroom. Through meditation on capitalism I find my free space to Be, my comfortable form of radicalism.

I am afraid to be known. I hide behind “honesty”. Target knows I am pregnant before I know I am pregnant. (1) Honesty is a quality I can no longer possess because I am known more by corporations than I know myself. Honesty is terrifying because it represents something I do not possess. The television knew I needed a boyfriend before I did. The television knew women must be beautiful before I knew. I am playing a small role as possessor of body/ possessor of capital. My anarchy is fake. My dismissal of anything not feminist/ radical is meaningless. I still wake up to the punch clock, to the day at the Organic Grocery Store. I try to write to form radical change. But, I still only feel safe at the Ross Park Mall. This world wasn’t created for people who feel things. I cannot possess honesty, I can only reflect my place in a system that is growing out of control. The literal cost in How Much Does It Cost? is all of us who are not ready to make a radical change. It is we who want to walk down the street in short-shorts and not be harassed but instead accept silence. We who buy the “organic pork and the sprouted corn tortillas” and post about food-rights on our blog. We are the cost of the system. We were not first concerned with our comfortable spot, now the comfort is the Cost.



Joe Hogle lives in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also known as Ronny Cammareri, Mr. Weekend, poopsmithey, and The Love Guru. You can enjoy a hypertext story and read some of his poetry HERE.

No Comments
February 14th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Two new responses to Calvin Bedient’s Boston Review essay “Against Conceptualism” that are worth a read:

Drew Gardner: Flarf is Life: The Poetry of Affect

Rachel Galvin: Lyric Backlas


Milk and Filth

411bF9eOC7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Milk and Filth
by Carmen Giménez Smith
The University of Arizona Press, October 2013
80 pages / $15.95  Buy from Amazon or The University of Arizona Press







The shinier the surfaces, the more the body leaves a smear on them, but contamination goes both ways. Increasingly, it’s what we feed on, even if it’s the parasite feasting on our dreams. It used to be that producer, distributor, and consumer were relatively separate entities, but the next economy wants them to be the same, as the object to be consumed becomes inseparable from its transmission, its dispersion, although what’s being sold and consumed are selves that the corporations are designing right next to the security apparatuses. “Your Data Is Political” is the title of a poem in Carmen Giménez Smith’s Milk and Filth describing the latest wave of colonization, which is related to what passes for culture these days—a user picking up someone else’s meme that the latter didn’t create while the whole process is datamined. But I like the accelerants—they make the fire go faster. And I’ll stick with poetry for now, because of any literary mode, its material components remain the most unruly, and the market still hasn’t figured out a way to capitalize on it, although just wait until they start charging for those MOOCs!

Poetry eludes efficiency, it shows choice to be fundamentally irrational, it embraces the misshapen, and so perhaps the most shocking line in Milk and Filth—a collection of poems aiming to transgress—is: “I write flabby poems, but fortunately my smart bombs cover them.” The problem with Conceptual poetics is that it’s too literal (or as Charles Bernstein says, “All poetry is conceptual but some is more conceptual than others.”), about a decade or two after the literal was transformed by the banality of the spectacle from discovery (“Q: And babies? A: And babies.”) to the dumb dumb club we’re all prodded to join. Perhaps poets should leave the documentaries to the historians and activists, which poetry can also be, but maybe if it’s not called art, which at least since Nirvana pop has relentlessly consumed. I’m willing to consider Lady Gaga an artist, but her music has never been anything but Top 40 fodder made by machines.

Elsewhere militarizing her metaphors, Giménez Smith understands the relationship between language and weaponry, the non-white body as an ongoing target as she seeks to “paint / more brown into the plot” and “wants mongrel dictions / to add to her arsenal.” But this intermixing is then intermixed with the deracination that occurs over generations as well as with the standardizing forms of expression and articulation, even when poetic: “the colonizing / worm is buried deep in you.” Indeed. Patriarchy is a motherfucker, and Milk and Filth veers more toward abjection than transgressiveness: “I’m debased but not that low,” she says, like William Pope.L sitting on a high toilet chewing the Wall Street Journal and washing it down with milk and ketchup, bio-economically redoubling the whiteness (and blood), or Cindy Sherman’s doll parts and viscera (an artist who along with the unfortunately overlooked Claude Cahun—the more radical version of Gertrude Stein—gets a nod in Giménez Smith’s endnotes to her poems). This (re-)claiming of the fragmented body turns inside out the totalizing gaze it has internalized; it floats to the surface the half-buried and the mostly unspoken, which are synonymous within regimes of the visible that change according to linguistic acts outside the normative, whether form or content, and usually the latter.

No wonder, then, that gender is treated as both fantasy and real. Milk and Filth opens with a series of poems entitled “Gender Fables” emphasizing the fabricated narratives that construct it, and one of these, “Susannah’s Nocturne,” might be read feminist after all the post(s)-:

On the bank hatching fable,
looking for the other though
the other was Me. I free myself
through tree music, what some called
my morality-inflicted wound.

More to the story that I can’t get inside
or out of without rope. In both
the story and the trope, I am bride.

“I is another” is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but “the other was Me” illuminates the oppressive conventions women and women of color are still Subjected to on a daily basis, ideologically betrothed but remaining resistant. Milk and Filth is filled with references to enclosure and entrapment, including within an ocean stretching as far as the I can see. Feminist politics and poetry offer primary means of escape, although they, like everything else, are compromised, in the latter case by the degree of class privilege (the rope here and other places in the book) that surviving—i.e., making a living—from writing poetry (well, teaching, actually; and teaching it tenure-track, in fact) entails. For all of its general progressiveness, the poetry world doesn’t like explicitly political poetry, except within the spoken word community. While not overtly political, Milk and Filth triangulates ethnicity, gender, and class in ways both direct and nuanced that would seem to be the starting point for depicting social conditions in the early twenty-first-century United States, but mostly isn’t.

Midway through Milk and Filth, Giménez Smith inserts a complicated and sometimes contradictory “Parts of an Autobiography” written in 111 short prose sections, usually consisting of a sentence or two: “72. I’m the Shitty Friend writing valentines. I modify everything.” To say one thing and do another isn’t ideal, but to say one thing and desire something else is the political/discursive realm under which we are asked to live. In Milk and Filth, marriage, parenthood, politics, poetry, representations of the female body, etc., are riven with compromise, discomfort, even disgust, while simultaneously celebrated and embraced. (Giménez Smith’s 2010 “memoir” in fragments, Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering, Art, Work, and Everything Else, reads similarly.) One of the best poems in the book imagines an erotic encounter—a Blue Velvet-ish “place / of libidinous blackout”—separate from the cares and responsibilities of the everyday world with its mortgages and ceaseless office emails. Yet the very possibility of yet is the implicit yearning in this book, the sustaining metaphor of milk mingled with the non-figurative filth of how messy life really is.


Alan Gilbert is the author of two books of poetry, The Treatment of Monuments (Split Level Texts) and Late in the Antenna Fields (Futurepoem), as well as a collection of essays, articles, and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight (Wesleyan University Press).

No Comments
February 10th, 2014 / 10:00 am


Onward with a Grin: A Scene from Herzog by Saul Bellow

by Saul Bellow
Originally published by Viking Press, 1964
Buy from Amazon







In the lecture he delivered on the first day of classes at Wellesley College and Cornell University, Vladimir Nabokov tells of a Russian poet who was executed in 1921 because he would not stop smiling. Nikolai Gumilev died on an unknown day in August and, although his Soviet executioners did not know it, the crime for which he was first arrested was most certainly fabricated by their higher-ups. Still, Nabokov says, what truly irked “Lenin’s ruffians” was Gumilev’s steadfast smile, which he held even against the shock of the firing squad.

There is a cheerful morbidity in this anecdote that’s mixed from unpleasant truth, dark absurdity, and the inexorably joyous countenance of a man knowing he must die.  There’s also a fundamental comedy of desperation on behalf of the Soviet goons who, at some point during the interrogations, must have flung up their arms up and said that if this poet won’t quit grinning then he has to go, so Gumilev unmindfully did.

This sort of comedy—with its helplessness, muddled terror, and insistent smile—is intertwined with the tragic in Saul Bellow’s fiction. Bellow intermingles sadness with laughter to create desperate comedies of hurt and self-humiliation, which attempt at first to allay pain through punchlines, by turning sorrow into farce. In art, the comic is usually superficial. Laughter is assigned the role of cure-all healer, a wheeler-and-dealer with the snake oil of stock gags and slapstick, where jokes are told to lighten the mood and reduce the gloom; yet Bellow pierces deeper.

For Bellow, laughter is not superficial, nor is it sorrow’s antithesis; for Bellow, laughter is the inherent human response to the incomprehensibility of life and all the flummoxing troubles therein. Comedy, then, becomes the involuntary sidekick that guides Bellow’s heroes who struggle closer to the crux of life’s inadequacies with vigor and a grin. The desperate comedy in Saul Bellow’s fiction forces the tragedy deeper by making it a little more palatable and accurate.

There’s a silly scene from Herzog that’s stuck in my mind for many years. It involves CPR and a monkey. Deep in the novel, Moses Herzog returns to Chicago to visit his young daughter who lives with his ex-wife. Before Herzog meets his daughter, he spends the night with an old friend, Luke Asphalter, a bachelor-zoologist who studies monkeys, and recently Herzog read in a magazine that when one of Asphalter’s subjects died he tried to revive it. “You must have been out of your mind, giving Rocco mouth-to-mouth respiration,” Herzog says. “That’s letting eccentricity go too far.” Asphalter says no one else’s death could have unraveled him the way Rocco’s did.

“You don’t mind if I smile,” Herzog apologized. “I can’t help it.”

“What else can you do?” Asphalter asks.

Is it mad to cherish an animal above all else? Is it insane that Asphalter says, “I was glad I had no wife or kids to hide these crying jags from,” because after Rocco died, he underwent a depression, quit showing at work, and let his beard grow so he’d better resembled the deceased simian? To Herzog it’s funny, devastating but funny, at least, he says, as “these painful emotional comedies” go.

It’s difficult to qualify the comedy in this scene—how it works, what to call it, what sort of reaction it requires; there are not one-word answers. There’s an element of black humor but it’s surpassed by Asphalter’s love and an element of absurdity that corrodes under the tears. There’s physical comedy in the memory of Asphalter attempting to resuscitate Rocco, though it seems less funny once Asphalter admits how much he needed the creature. The cartoon entertainment of a man giving CPR to a monkey mixes with the seriousness of loss. There’s death, loneliness, solitude, cordiality, and Moses Herzog’s continual bafflement as he tries to understand and fails. Asphalter says he’s been experimenting with different psychoanalytic treatments in an attempt to defeat his grief, but nothing helps. “Perhaps he was about to cry. I hope he won’t, thought Herzog. His heart went out to him,” Bellow writes. Then, as Asphalter describes how for one grief therapy session he pretended that he himself was dead—to overcome the sorrow of death by overcoming his own—Herzog thinks about Heidegger’s views and how “human life is far subtler than any of its models, even these ingenious German models. Do we need to study theories of fear and anguish?” This adds a tinge of humorous humility. The grand thinkers, as masterful as they may be, have no words to assuage the awfulness of the death of Rocco the monkey.

“You don’t mind if I smile?” “What else can you do?”

This exchange has guiding force. It’s the force of a smile that protrudes through, a smile mixed a startled, helpless laugh. The scene encapsulates the necessity of laughter, the deep soul-grunt of relief that laughter offers. Pain, loneliness, loss—these casual horrors are held at bay by the rebellious power of Herzog’s chuckle and grin. Laughter can stand up to misery and darkness; laughter is often an act of defiance. Shockingly, the worst of life can be shrugged off with a silly grin. “What else can you do?” These words have echoed in my mind for a long time. It’s a simple exchange, the kind that you could overhear on a bus or have with a friend about something very trivial or serious. Don’t mind if I smile? What else can you do? The facial expression that goes with “What else can you do?” is so particularly human it’s stunning.

Nabokov once described the Chekhovian hero as “a good man who cannot make good,” someone who “stumbles because he is staring at the stars.” One cold night in Chicago a while ago, Moses Herzog crashed on his friend’s couch. And there they were, two injured men laughing, two men who did their best but since when has that ever been good enough? The stars burn with infinite indifference to the plight of dreamers. The stars are beautiful but they cannot guide us.

“Unexpected intrusions of beauty.  This is what life is,” Herzog thinks later, while he fills a sink with water and notices the “gray light” of the bathroom and the “almost homogenous whiteness” of the oval basin. The same holds for humor. Unexpected intrusions of laughter, of smiles, are what life is. They make the daily struggle slightly more bearable, knowing that at some point a chuckle, hearty haha, or quiet smile will arrive. Laughter is the necessary response to inexplicable loss and inevitable decay, a required reaction to all the regular and extravagant hurts that mark our days. What else can you do? Out of nowhere sometimes, like a ferocious roar, laughter will burst forth to remind us we are so fiercely, foolishly alive.


Alex Kalamaroff is a 26-year-old writer living in Boston. He works on the administrative team of a Boston Public Schools high school. You can read his other writings here or follow him on twitter @alexkalamaroff.

No Comments
February 10th, 2014 / 10:00 am


DON’T START ME TALKIN’ by Tom Williams

DonDon’t Start Me Talkin’
by Tom Williams
Curbside Splendor Publishing
220 pages / $15.95   Buy from Curbside Splendor






People put on different fronts every day for different reasons—maybe for work, romance, or as a means to escape themselves—and some perhaps do it unwittingly while others do it with great care. In Williams’ immensely satisfying novel, musicians Wilton and Peter are of the latter variety, slipping in and out of their respective personas as the salty True Delta Blues veteran Brother Ben and his harp (harmonica) playing young partner Silent Sam. Narrated by Peter—an educated man who, when playing the part of Silent Sam, can barely read—the story brings the reader on what might be the duo’s final North American tour.  Whether they’re giving interviews or playing small venues on college campuses, Wilton (who plays golf on the sly and is ten years younger than his slumped and sleepy alter ego Brother Ben) and Peter must cling to their contrivances and the deep, often fictitious mythology that’s brought them to this point. As Brother Ben and Silent Sam, they’re giving audiences—largely made up of white, nerdy, academic fanboys—and critics what they want: genuine purveyors of the blues, hard-living men who’ve risen from squalor with music both heart-wrenching and hopeful. For five years, Wilton has taught Peter how to play the part, how to dress, eat, and speak when in the public eye, and Peter sometimes wrestles with this willful dishonesty and how it affects his worldview: “When you spend so much time being someone you’re not, you suspect everyone’s got a con.” The reader sees Peter’s strained relationship with his family, his mother lamenting she doesn’t know who her son is and worried this Silent Sam character is taking over. She wants Peter to lead a normal life, or a life with which she can better identify, and Peter too struggles with this same desire to give up the charade that’s allowed him to do what he loves. Peter and Wilton love playing the blues, and they play the blues so well they’ve been invited to the Beale Street Blues Awards in Memphis where they’ve been nominated for Best Traditional Artist. Whether they’ll win or not is anyone’s guess and maybe the achy and proud persona of Brother Ben could care less either way: whatever happens will sear itself into the mythology Wilton seems to love nearly as much as the music. Beale Street is just one stop among many on this fantastic ride that gains momentum as their tour progresses and Williams keeps perfect rhythm with everything he sets in motion: the identity conflicts, the grind of the tour, the danger of being discovered as frauds, and the questionable future of the duo. Through the amiable voice of Peter, Williams guides the reader from the passenger seat of the duo’s styling ’76 Fleetwood Brougham, to the ephemeral privacy offered by a hotel room, to the damp hardwood of the stage: “And when it seems we can’t push past the limits True Delta Blues imposes on us, Ben says, ‘Blow Sam,’ and allows me a solo of two choruses. I push those notes around like they looked at my woman and need a reminder not to try that shit again.” Tense, thoughtful, and funny, this novel will leave readers floating from the show, ears ringing and hearts racing. (February 2014)


Mel Bosworth is the author of the novel FREIGHT.


No Comments
February 7th, 2014 / 10:00 am


Tristano by Nanni Balestrini

by Nanni Balestrini
Verso Books, Feb 2014
128 pages / $25  Buy from Verso Books or Amazon







Bear with me as I use a paragraph to go through what I think is a problem with global leftist thought.

When equality is the ultimate aim of a movement, whether it be economic, social, gender, or any other form, and said equality never historically existed in those areas, the notion of it has to have been constructed in the ideal realm, as opposed to the observable—some might say objective realm (but let’s not go into that)—and could only have come as a reaction against what is actually happening in the real world. So far there is no sign that equality will ever grace us with its presence in the social world in any form, at least not on a large scale, but that’s not to say that the idea doesn’t sell. When movements like the Occupy one fail not as a result of energetic potential, but because of a lack of concise probing into problems with feasible resolutions, this says that a disillusioned segment of the population has the impetus to change economic disparity, but not the means to effectively do so. In other words they’re stuck in ideals, sifting through Verso books, with no reason to believe that these ideals could possibly move into observational reality. But that last part typically gets left out because the most horrifying thought to a progressive movement is the idea that our only real options are stasis or continued decay, that the option of equality is a completely delusional invention used to string us along.

Whether intentional or not (and how, with this book, could I be sure?), reading Tristano, or at least my version of it, numbered 10,672, conjured these thoughts through the annoyed trudge that was the experience of reading this book. The novel is broken up into ten chapters with fifteen paragraphs. The fifteen paragraphs of each chapter are interchangeable and each edition of the book is presented in a different narrative order, making for different possibilities of reading experiences number at 109,027,350,432,000. And like ideas of equality, the expectations are promising and exciting, but the result is disappointing, and precisely for the same reasons. When an idea like equality is stuck in the ideal realm, each individual has a different experience with it, has different notions of how to execute it and different notions what it should be. If this weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be so many different strains of Marxism, or ongoing arguments over precise meanings of his texts, or what should be followed and what not, or even if they should be followed at all. Tristano, too, is individualized for your consumption, but I can guarantee that all versions lead the reader nowhere, that each subjective experience with this text would be similar to the one I had, as equal in their failed executions.

Aside from the numerous possibilities of ordered narratives, there are also uncertainties with the number of characters, what their genders actually are, where a comma should go to make sense of a sentence, where quotations should go and who would be speaking, ultimately placing the most amount of importance on the reader as the most essential character in, and creator of the book. Since the initial readthrough was wrought with indecision and uncertainty, it seems that ideally you’d need to read the novel once so that you would know what decisions you’d need to make for the next time. I’d be surprised if I found anyone who would want to do this, though. As he says near the beginning of my version: “It looks like a very complicated story but with a little patience you manage to unravel the problem. The question is not so much the story itself but rather what effects it might produce what developments it might have what dynamics it might set in motion.” Although this makes sense, and effects are produced, nothing could possibly be set in motion afterwards because all the elements in the story are simply too loose and too vague. I think the intention was to make an experience resembling a Rorschach test, where the reader would input his or her own projections to fill in the empty spaces and cover up the discrepancies. What happened though, at least in my experience, was that I wasn’t concerned with the story. I got lost thinking about what other structures of this book would be like, and the only reason my mind wandered this way resulted from a lack of intriguing themes or narrative or characters to string me along. Loosely the book is a love story, vaguely involving infidelity. With the interchangeable set up presented, nothing winds up getting invested in the reading, and the story reads like a mess of pointless interactions between people or ideas I didn’t care about, like brainstorm scribblings of a bad romance novel.

Even Umberto Eco in his introduction spent more time giving a history lesson on the different uses of combinations instead of discussing the merits of the book. While the mathematical feat is awe inspiring, and the idea one of the most original to come to literature in maybe its entire history, interacting with this text just isn’t interesting. The novel embodies the paralysis of the left, and this failure toward action concerned Balestrini when writing the book. As a member of both Italy’s Gruppo 63 avant-garde collective, along with the Autonomia movement, among other leftist cliques, Balestrini knew first hand the power of state forces against subversive elements, and felt distraught with the lack of effective leftist action. Even if the intention were to expose the inherent powerlessness in the left, is reading this short book—one so overwhelming it’s underwhelming—worth such a simple message that could be illustrated by more stimulating means?

The one thing that I will grant this book is that it is very aware of itself, and by the last chapter, I was somewhat glad that I didn’t give up on it all the times I wanted to. My second to last paragraph went like this:

Everything is false from here on. I want to show you the construction technique uses well-polished stones without mortar. On his right he saw a strip of land where the cave opened up. A huge pile of sentences that don’t mean anything. There’s too much stuff. Nothing worth talking about. Everyone has a personal story of their own. A very simple almost banal story that could be summarized in a few lines. They look like flies trapped in a web of some big spider. He wandered amongst the rubble in a daze. He had the feeling of having already been in that place. Look down there. Stretching out in front of them as far as the eye could see expanding without any apparent limit. What’s wrong. C rested a hand on his shoulder and smiled invitingly at him. You don’t need to explain anything. It was a very hot night. You can say whatever you want she said and kissed him.

Even by the end of the book I couldn’t be sure if C was male, female, or if there were multiple Cs, so the romantic aspect, the story at the forefront, just went ignored and the only things left worth concerning myself with were the metafictional aspects and the inactive leftist ideals aware of themselves as inactive that popped up throughout. Tristano, in the end, acts as a fractional artifact of a great idea that just didn’t transfer over into reality well, and it’s sole value lies there. When communism emerged in its initial worldly form as the Soviet Union, it resembled its antithesis—fascism—more than the ideals that spawned it. Perhaps the only message Tristano wanted to get out was this discrepancy between ideals and reality, and that no matter how many combinations we use, none will be the right ones given the tools we’re using. If so, Ballestrini succeeded, but much to my indifference.

No Comments
February 3rd, 2014 / 10:00 am


Chronicles of the Immediate Present

grayscale-creeleyYr Lad, Bob
by Sara Peck
Persistent Editions, 2013
$8  Buy from Persistent Editions







The South Carolinian poet Sara Peck has opened, in part, her chapbook Yr Lad, Bob (Persistent Editions, 2013) with a set of phrases that reference two very different experiences of time:

waiting for the train // I’ll always love / you

Waiting, of course, tends to slow time down so much that one becomes aware, almost, of its not passing.  And a variety of apprehensions can exacerbate this awareness even more:  will the train ever come?  Will I be on time when I get where I’m going?  Will I be able to do whatever I’m going there for?  The feelings waiting can trigger are then contrasted with the line’s next phrase, the promise of which, of always being loved, attempts to mollify all apprehension and impatience.  That is, an awareness of how slow time can feel is opposed to a feeling or desire that love will trump time by not ending, which is implicit in the word “always.”  Readers of Yr Lad, Bob will find out in the book’s Forward (by poet Lisa Fishman) that single and double slash marks in the text indentify line breaks and stanza divisions in original poems; Peck has culled lines and phrases for her own book from the works of Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Robert Duncan and interspersed these with what were once her reading notes.  Here though, as elsewhere throughout Yr lad, Bob, the slash marks serve an additional function:  they create silent interruptions which, surprisingly, and unlike commas and other punctuation, do not require the reader to stop or pause; in fact if anything they force the reader on.  As a result, the reader accesses moments, phenomena, and feelings which are almost mutually exclusive but which can occur in the poems in one and the same line, or, in terms of the poem read aloud, in one and the same breath. The slash marks allow for the co-existence of things that don’t normally go together, and encountering and experiencing this co-existence is one of the many pleasing things that happens to readers of the book.

Elsewhere in Yr Lad, Bob the slashes touch on time by graphically disrupting colloquial phrases (such as “over and over”) that express repetition if not continuity:

that freshness, over / and over: summer / in the folds of your dress

In examples like these, one begins to see that part of the relineation project of the text is to re-score, or set to new music, a selection of lines by Black Mountain poets.  The slashes, however, take us further:  look at how they separate the line above into the very tresses or folds on which the line itself ends.  It is in moments and places like this that Sara Peck’s chapbook expands the reader’s awareness of time to include an acute awareness of the overall appearance of the page.  And such an acute awareness goes far beyond an understanding of reading which views that process solely in terms of signification, that is, in terms of words having the function of conveying something (mental pictures, emotion, information) to a reader or receiver.

As the poems in Yr Lad, Bob gradually shift us from reading to looking, we become, in places, exposed to the raw exchange of sameness and difference which is evidently a core part of language.  Even a phrase as simple as

weather / to reassure

is teeming with variation.  The first syllable in “reassure” picks up and recycles, as in a mirror reversal, the final syllable in “weather.”  The same vowel combination (“ea”) appears in both words, but each time differently, once as diphthong, once as separate syllables.  Finally, both words end in “r”-sounds which are close but not exact matches; the sounds cleave toward each other as they fail to overlap perfectly.


No Comments
February 3rd, 2014 / 10:00 am


In the Moremarrow / En la masmédula by Oliverio Girondo

in-the-moremarrowIn the Moremarrow / En la masmédula
by Oliverio Girondo, translated by Molly Weigel
Action Books, 2013
93 pages / $16  Buy from Action Books or SPD





the pure impure mix that undoes my dovetails my soulmortar tightens my stubborn female couplings
the mix
the mix I stuck my bridges together with

That first line is beautiful & on one level it seems a sort of how-I-wrote-my-book-and-so-can-you! treatise by Girondo.  They are the last 4 lines of In the Moremarrow‘s first poem, The Mix

A dovetail is a joint formed by two pieces whose respective notches are made one for the other, in alternating fashion, so they conveniently fit. Here, the dovetails are undone, & instead we have for example soulmortar, an unlikely union of the ethereal intangible but vital, with the crushed inert material. Which, in creation myths, sounds like the soul blown into dust to animate a person. Perhaps, then, this is not so foreign. It is more primordial marrow. The mix seems to refer, then, to this poetics of uniting the disjointed, of mending broken ligaments, & the “bridges” are the compound words themselves, the neologistic portmanteaus

It is hard to say what stubborn female couplings refers to. Maybe something about the male poet accepting his anima, that female part of him that is stubbornly there but his machismo stubbornly rejects.  This is a reach, as psychoanalysis is a reach. The “ex-she” seems to support it, & the several later poems’ repeated references to the ego seem to support it, & the erotics of “the mix” seem to support it, but it still feels like conjecture

Every left page gives the original Spanish version of the poem, and the right page holds the translation. I notice the Spanish helps. The original version of that first line is two

la pura impura mezcla que me merma los machimbres el almamasa tensa las tercas
hembras tuercas

English grammar now is largely gender-neutral, and Spanish grammar isn’t. Every noun & adjective in this sentence is female (ending in -a or -as) except for two. On a macro level we at least can say that “female couplings” refers to the writing itself. The writing is self-referential. The universe of En la masmédula writes its own rules & thereby writes itself into existence. Perhaps this explains its lack of proper nouns; on one level, it has no need to tie itself to the World as we know it, it needn’t be referential, it loves itself into being, it is self-reverential. It ties itself to the Word. It hermetically seals itself

But on another level, no. It hermaphroditically seals itself

Because it rewrites itself by correcting the mistakes of our World. The mistakes of our World embed themselves inside the grammar that we use, those stubborn couplings that lead us towards fixed fragmentations, binary perspectives, formal & social discriminations. Therefore the recombinations in this book are all still legible, because they adhere to grammar rules but comment on them while deforming them. “alma” for example means soul. It is one of those strange nouns with a feminine ending (alma), but is nevertheless considered a masculine noun, hence the male article “el.” Combining “alma” with the feminine noun “masa,” however, creates a Word of indeterminate gender, but the “el” still precedes it. This seems a problematization.  “masa,” in fact, means flour, it is the baseline substance for sweet sumptuous cakes, for savory bread of the Earth, etc.

“machimbres” isn’t a word. It reminds of the word “machismo,” a word English has imported, & of the word “chimba” which can mean the opposite bank of a river, or a pigtail, or a piece of meat, etc. It also sounds like “machihembrado,” a dovetail joint, hence Weigel’s translation choice. It seems again though that this dovetail has been pared down, to remind us of all its assemblage, & question gender once again. To undo the dovetails, quite literally. A beautiful translation choice. It bridges shores. The shores Girondo sticks his bridges with

Translation is hard.




A lot of poems end on their own titles, creating a feeling of being in an enclosure. This is a bizarre feeling, because the poems are intensely lyrical without being confessional or “sincere” or narrative in the way the Lyric I often attempts to be; instead it is like handling a ball of pure psychic energy. The poem entitled “You have to look for it” has three stanzas, each of which ends on “for the poem,” which inscribes itself within the title’s “it.” The first line of the poem goes

In the eropsychis full of guests then meanders of waiting absence

Which is, like, incredible. But once again, very gestural. It once again informs the readers of the poem’s motive & the poem’s dimensions. It is a meeting place, a delimited house, a hovel of guests, entering the poet’s eroticized ego; it couples. There are other people there, straying, erranding


1 Comment
January 31st, 2014 / 10:00 am


Yearning For Elsewhere: André Aciman’s Alibis

indexAlibis: Essays on Elsewhere
by André Aciman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
208 pages / Buy from Amazon





In his 2012 collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, André Aciman explores the elsewheres of his life. He contemplates the places he’s lived and traveled to—Cambridge, Rome, Alexandria, Venice, and New York—and ruminates about what his life was like there. Except Aciman isn’t interested in actuality. Throughout this collection, he pursues an imagined past. It’s a touching, at times, fusty perspective where the “what was perhaps and might have been has more meaning than what just is.” It’s the perspective of a man who’s read too many books.

Aciman is reflective in an exquisitely literary way. He calls upon his beloved books and authors to define his experiences. Venice is understood by way of Thomas Mann. Tuscany is seen through the lens of Machiavelli’s letters. There’s “De Quincey’s London, Browning’s Florence, [and] Camus’s Oran,” not to mention Monet’s Bordighera, Virgil’s Rome, and Lawrence Durrell’s vanished Alexandria. This mix of high culture and Old World geography makes Aciman’s writing quite pleasurable. It’s hard not to be charmed by descriptions of Italian farmhouses and unsalted Tuscan bread interwoven with references to Dante. Simultaneously, the constant invocation of canonical literature grows moldy and, over time, seems like an extremely fancy crutch, as though Aciman is unable to experience the world without first quoting Proust and La Fayette.

It’s a delicate snare, one most readers can relate to. As we learn about the world through books and movies, we want to visit that world. Who wouldn’t, after reading Benjamin, Balzac, and Baudelaire, want that Paris over the drab Paris of today—a Paris we know nothing about? The elsewheres Aciman longs for are mirages, and he admits it. But they’re such beautiful mirages it’s easy to believe they’re realer than what goes on outside his hotel room window.

Aciman’s elsewheres are geographically and temporally distant from his present writerly position in “a cork-lined room.” Yet it is only here, sealed away in this room, removed from the hubbub and uproar of regular life, that Aciman’s elsewheres can exist. In “Intimacy,” one of the longer and strongest essays in the collection, he recalls his teenage days living with his mother on Via Clelia, a working-class street in Rome. Aciman and his family are exiles. They escaped Egypt in 1965. And after three years in Italy, they’ll move to America, a country that even decades later Aciman does not consider home. “Home,” he writes in a later essay, “is all together elsewhere.”

When Aciman revisits Via Clelia many years later, he’s tense with anticipation. He wishes for something thrilling to happen, for something to pop out and scream, Remember me? “But nothing happened. I was, as I always am during such moments, numb to the experience.” As it turns out, the old street where he used to live is just that, an old street. The barbershop and plumber’s storefront are gone but the printer’s shop remains. Via Clelia means nothing more or less than it always has. And that’s no good. During the present moments of his revisiting, Aciman’s anticipation and memories are squandered by the “numbness” he inevitably feels, a numbness frequently encountered whenever he’s confronted by the present. Fortunately, what we botch in life, we fix with art.

“It is the craft that makes life meaningful,” Aciman claims, “not the life itself.” This claim is repeated throughout Alibis and in his earlier books as well. Aciman finds meaning not in the moment, but in his memory of the moment, a memory that’s envisioned only long afterward, in that cork-lined room. It’s a claim that sets art up against life, a false dichotomy to be sure, but one that over the course of Aciman’s writing career has calcified into truth.

While analyzing Proust, Aciman describes a “literary time filter” that coats the world. In other essays, this “filter” is called an “illusory film”, “happy film”, or just plain “film.” It’s the façade of art, of artifice, of craft, which makes our past experiences more pleasing, sparkling, and grand, because it allows us to grasp the scintillating details and crystalline moments that are apparent only when we look back, details and moments that, quite naturally, are created by the intensity of our looking back. Aciman writes, “it is not the things we long for that we love; it is longing itself—just as it is not what we remember but remembrance itself that we love.” In eulogizing his past lives, Aciman cherishes not what has vanished or died, but the eulogy itself.

This is an incredibly literary take on life. At times it feels like too much. Aciman values the inventions of memory, where everything glows with the amber light of nostalgia and the spellbound evenings are seeped in melancholy blue, rather than what he quotes Proust as calling the “tyrannie du particulier, the tyranny of [the] day-to-day.” Aciman is entirely unable to enjoy the present moment, the day-to-day-ness of life, with its ephemeral joys and nonstop micro-disasters. The numbness he feels when faced with the immediacy of every passing moment can only be overcome through imaginative, highly referential reflection. “Even the experience of numbness,” he writes, “when traced on paper, acquires a resigned and disenchanted grace, a melancholy cadence that seems at once intimate and aroused compared with the original blah.” It’s this blah that Aciman believes the artist must do everything to defy.


1 Comment
January 27th, 2014 / 10:00 am


Review of The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry

conductor4The Conductor and Other Tales
by Jean Ferry
Wakefield Press, Nov 2013
176 pages / $13.95  Buy from Wakefield Press or Amazon





The biggest initial draw to this neglected collection of stories by avant-gardist Jean Ferry is his associations with other big names in French cinema and literature. Names like Buñuel, Carné, Malle, and Breton get dropped through the introductory materials to this edition, the first of his works to be fully published in English. Despite all these associations, the ultimate sensation one gets after reading this work, Ferry’s only collection of fiction, is that he’s not so easily lumped in with the surrealist or pataphysic movements that attempted to swallow him into their pigeonholes. Instead, as translator Edward Gauvin states in his introduction, “Ferry is the exception to every movement he’s been in,” a claim that ironically puts him further in line with the ideals of pataphysics .

The easiest way I can understand pataphysics is to say it’s the layer outside of metaphysics. Seeing as metaphysics is already shaky ground for thought systems, how does one breach the pataphysical level? Ferry’s method, in the handful of stories that best align themselves with this short-lived tradition, is to introduce a story very simply and unassumingly. The story then leads the reader subtly into abstract territory where one can infer a number of metaphors throughout the narration, ones that give the text its weight, just like any other well-executed traditional literary text. But what Ferry does is extends the metaphor further, going off into a tangent that speeds like a rocket, flying through incidents and ideologies it has no time to explain, but only enough to introduce in passing, making the end result of each of these bite sized stories, when looking back over them, akin to a godly perspective, where earlier particulars lose their distinctions.

The etymology of the term avant-garde derives from the group of soldiers sent into the battlefield earliest to scope out the situation. The job requires simultaneous sensitivities to caution, intuition, timeliness, and luck. Ferry’s take seems to be to speedily pull the avant-garde as far as he could take it, to sprint into the most vulnerable area of the form and celebrate it unabashedly. Instead of creeping around the bushes and trying to figure out the terrain, Ferry runs full speed through the deathly silent tension of a potential warzone, using luck as his only strategy. In this way Ferry doesn’t have time to go back and worry about if the path his narrative took may have been the wrong one; he doesn’t give himself that luxury. The intention is to go somewhere far beyond the point where normal beyond seekers are already going.

The first story, “Notice,” begins with a meta narrative of the collection, about the uncertainty of its publication, let alone shelf life. Instead of being stuck in worry and using that worry to craft embarrassing or tryhard lines wrought with uncertainty, Ferry storms through, forgetting the topic of his manuscript, and instead turns attention to the adventures of the desk drawer it’s housed in, following it all the way to its destruction only a couple of sentences later, where he returns to the manuscript papers as they are used to stuff a package on its way to Africa, making sure to note along the way that “none of this is implausible.” His manuscript is found, recorded into a Dictaphone, and translated into an esoteric African language. Red ants eat the manuscript, and the African tribe for which the manuscript was translated eventually goes extinct, aside from one member who finds the Dictaphone, and becomes the sole audience for this book. Ferry ends the tale, “I write for that black man.”

Although ‘Notice’ highlights Ferry’s methods, it neglects the themes that frequent this collection, the most prominent of which is fatigue. In what I think to be the best story in the collection, “Traveler with Luggage,” fatigue infects the mind that’s recovering from a mental breakdown to not only weigh it down like an anchor, but to set up sporadic snares for it to get trapped in. It seems that to Ferry, exhaustion and its resulting laziness is the greatest hurdle humanity has to overcome, and our light treatment of it results from our inability to understand its truly horrific nature. The veneer of comfort in leisure seamlessly morphs into insanity, and by the time it’s understood, one has “neither willpower, nor the will to have willpower.” For the creative narrator of this story, when stuck in such a predicament, one where laziness dismisses the need to be creative, only to replace it with nothingness, life itself takes on an unreal and unwelcoming tinge. “It was the most abominable dream I’d ever had, and it was no dream.”

“The Conductor” is the most polished piece of fiction in the entire collection, and best shows off Ferry’s skills in allegorical creation and pataphisical method. The person that the conductor addresses from the beginning, which could have been you, the reader, leaves at one point, but the conductor continues speaking, announcing, “believe me, we sure are making tracks.” What extending metaphors, storylines, and other forms beyond their limits like this does is allows us to illuminate the substance of the metaphor and everything around it, and get far enough away from it so that perhaps we can see the full picture of that substance, perhaps to check if we may have missed something inherent to it.

This small yet potent collection has too much to discuss in one brief review. Stories like “Kafka, or ‘The Secret Society,’” “My Aquarium,” “On the Frontiers of Plaster (A Few Notes on Sleep)”, and “Childhood Memories” all have a uniqueness that makes this book highly worthwhile. The illustrations by Claude Ballaré that appear before each story are a very welcome complement that add to the dark Romantic feel of the stories. For fans of quirky, bleak, and short French fiction from the post-surrealist era, this book is a new must have.

January 27th, 2014 / 10:00 am


Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits by Robert Vaughan

Diptychs-Triptychs-Lipsticks-Dipshits-Robert-VaughanDiptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits
by Robert Vaughan
Deadly Chaps, Dec 2013
60 pages / $9  Buy from Amazon or Deadly Chaps







Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits by Robert Vaughan was a bit of a puzzle for me at first. I’ve read a couple short pieces by Vaughan before, but I’m still fairly new to his work. Those who know him well as a senior flash fiction editor at JMWW or Lost in Thought and/or as the author of the chapbook Microtones (his first full length book, Addicts and Basements, is forthcoming in February 2014) might be slightly more prepared to know what they were holding in their hands. As for me, I just felt my way along and pondered.

I heard some people describe Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits as micro fiction, though others described it as a mixture of micro fiction and poetry. I’m hesitant to go with either description because I just don’t think it’s that clear.

I’m not the most familiar with micros, but if that’s what these are then Vaughan seems to pioneer his own version of the form, if not his own form entirely. Let’s consider “MOVING TO LOS ANGELES: A SCREENPLAY IN THREE ACTS.” In a section labeled “First Act” we are introduced to a character going to L.A. to complete a screenplay about JOE and LIS, “lovers who eat each other, part by part until there is no ‘other’ left.” In the “Second Act,” we find out that JOE is:

a perfect fuckhead. He’s seeing three other women (all named for European cities, like Sofia) and lies to them all. He’s also a sodomizer, and fronts a band that gets five or ten people to a gig. So, he’s getting fucked, too. JOE figures we all are.

Rounding things out, the “Third Act” tells us that “JOE uses the restroom, never returns” and “LIS catches a Cubs pop fly in her gaping mouth,” causing her suffocate. This is a drastic simplification of the piece, but what it shows certainly doesn’t have the same feel or proceed about things in the same way that I’ve seen in the usual micro fiction I know.

For one thing, there is some of the poem about “MOVING TO LOS ANGELES: A SCREENPLAY IN THREE ACTS.”  The three acts, the symmetry in the portions and the way they play off each other and morph elements as the piece progresses, bear a great deal of resemblance to sections of a poem. Many of the pieces have a poetic structure, the “Diptychs” and “Triptychs” portion of the title being descriptive of some of the contents though quite a few pieces are neither. By way of example, “COMMON PASSWORD PROFILE USERS: GOD, LOVE, LUST, MONEY AND PRIVATE” has portions that jump off from each of the five most commonly used passwords:


What the hell kind of a name is Penfield? She wonders while he takes a leak off the back porch. She leans to se fresh bruises in the dawn’s early light. She rolls too far, ends up on the bamboo-planked floor, giggling. Creepy-crawls under the bed to dial 911 on her mobile phone.

However, though having poetic elements, the works in Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits also don’t exactly remind me that much of most poetry I’ve seen. I’m certainly not a poetry expert by any means. I read somewhere around twenty or thirty books of poetry a year, which I think is more than average but not as much as a serious devotee. Regardless, consider “PART OF LIFE: TWO WAYS.” Sections of this work contrast a child’s view of her dad when her teacher releases a “deformed creature” with that of her mother’s view of the same event. In “Dad” we have: “Part of life, I heard Dad say for the millionth time. Just like mom’s lymphoma.” However, “Mom” relates: “The creature didn’t stir, not a peep. I started to salivate. Would it taste better with cumin or cardamom?” Poem? I’m not sure.

I mean, “Dad” is structured in lines perhaps like a poem, but “Mom” is a solid paragraph. Is it a poem mixing stanzas and prose poetry? Is “Mom” just a single long stanza asymmetrical to the pretty much one-line stanzas of “Dad?” As I mentioned, I’m not a poetry expert. Regardless, it seems to me to have an interesting structure when I look at it as a poem.

To me, it almost seems like Vaughan applies poetic techniques to micro fiction writing, resulting in prose that feels a little more on the fiction side but has a fundamental underlying approach that smacks more of poetry. Still, it isn’t something I can completely pin down. Frankly, the word “Stories” on the cover is really the best description, as each definitely conveys a full story via what seems like brush stoke suggestions (this example from “BLACK & WHITE/COLOR”):

I got stuck in a cul-de-sac. The first thing I lost was my glasses, so everything was a smudge, blurred together like rotten trash. In the first house on the circle, a woman was playing Chopin. Her left hand crossed over her right during the allegro section and she nodded with her head to sit down. But I chose her kitchen hoping to find some butterscotcheroos or chex mix, or a ripe avocado at the very least. Came up empty. The next house was topsy turvey: too messy; the third I shipped because if you can’t leave your lights on for wayfarers, then you deserve to be ignored. The fourth house, a Colonial, had a nice built-in pool around back, so I took a quick dip, swam a few laps before I’d realized I’d swam under the foundation and was in a basement dungeon. I fled up the stairs but the door was locked. It took me forever to get out of that place with my bare hands.

I realize that I’ve spent the vast majority of this review just trying to pin down exactly what Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits is. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter as long as one digs the pieces, which I do. However, when writing is this adventurous in form, I don’t think you can adequately consider it without looking a great deal at the form. I can’t help it; the form of the pieces fascinates.

Personally, I would classify Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits as something that is challenging to define but gratifying to experience. There are certainly leaps and turns that by themselves make the book worth looking at for their wildness. It may not take a long time to sit down and read, but that one sitting is by no means the end of a reader’s engagement. Echoes linger long after the actual sound that caused them is gone.


David S. Atkinson is the author of “Bones Buried in the Dirt and the forthcoming “The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes” (EAB Publishing, spring 2014). His writing appears in “Bartleby Snopes,” “Grey Sparrow Journal,” “Interrobang?! Magazine,” “Atticus Review,” and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/ and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.

January 24th, 2014 / 12:00 pm


Because by Joseph Riippi

by Joseph Riippi
Civil Coping Mechanisms, February 2014
175 pages / $13.95   Book page at CCM / Buy from Amazon







It only takes about seven pages to begin to feel pained—even offended—by Joseph Riippi’s Because. This is primarily because every single sentence in the book (spoiler alert: except the last) begins with the words “I want.” A structure like this poses serious problems for a reader like me and like most of us, hyper-aware of the sins of heavy-handedness and bared authorial intention as we are. Because’s offenses against a readerly sensibility include:

1) Narcissism. It’s hard to like a book authored by someone who seems to speak only about himself.

Caveat: Riippi knows this. He says:

I want to feel less narcissistic for writing this.

I want to be honest in writing this, even if honesty means narcissistic feelings.

2) Melodrama/naïveté. The battle of the genuine vs. the ironic has been played out on many fields in the last few decades. I’m most acquainted with David Foster Wallace’s part in the battle for a post-postmodern literature that might be honest with the reader without being formally regressive. People mostly cite his “E Unibus Pluram” essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again when referring to this tension.[1]

Caveat: Riippi also knows this, and he is willing to own it.

I want you to know I mean this completely and sentimentally but unabashedly and honestly and without shame.

3) The economics. What right does a white American male with the wherewithal to write a book have wanting so many things? It would be easy to tee up Because as a “typically American” book, so focused on personal desires that it fails to consider the actual hardships of the external world.

Caveat: I’m pretty sure Riippi knows this too. Not quite as explicitly, but his desires are so robust, so myriad, that such an acknowledgment often seems implicit in them. In this section, for example:

I want better cellular reception. I want an espresso machine. I want espresso to be good for me. I want health to be delicious. I want all that is delicious to be good for me and all that is disgusting to be good for me…I want a self-filling refrigerator and self-cleaning pans and pots that never stain.

All of which is to say that Because feels to me as if it is kind of supposed to be painful to read. I came in knowing the “I want” premise of the book, expecting Because to be an experimental novel that would be a little difficult to get through. And it is that, but not in the way you think of experimental—distant from the reader, difficult in terms of breaking the code of its linguistic tricks. Instead, it is so open, bleeding, and honest that it is almost impossible to stand. This is its own kind of experimentation, I think, and an extremely valuable one—both in making us examine our readerly biases and in urging us, time after time, to transcend them by sticking with the narrator on a project, he admits, he is so unsure about.

All that said, there’s more to Because than just “its simple mantra-like structure,” as Kevin Sampsell’s blurb calls it. The book is split up into segments that are usually between one and four pages long, titled with the first line of each section. The “wants” often shift dramatically within a given section, from college-ruled paper to grandmother’s grocery lists to bioluminescent flowers, for example. But the book really begins to stride when Riippi stays on a subject for the entirety of a section, or longer. In one segment, he speaks of his friend Jenns; how as the only freshmen on the high school football team he and Jenns had their heads shaved by a guy named Gator; how Jenns took the fall after the team TP’d a cheerleader’s house; how Jenns shot himself, later, leaving an indelible mark on the narrator’s life. The narrative continuity of sections like this is striking in a work that usually shifts desires and subjects rapidly. The Jenns thread and a few others like it almost constitute a sort of home, reminding us, suddenly, how welcome such a narrowed focus can be.

But perhaps the most interesting strand that comes out of Because is a certain kind of “want” peppered across the book, especially in its later pages: the desire to live fully and dangerously in a world where our lives can often feel sanitized and certain.

I want to narrowly escape an explosion. I want to hear the sounds of falling bombs. I want to drop for cover and pray, to dig inside my helmet for a rosary or talisman, to hear over the cataclysm the prayers of all my brothers who surround me.

I want to tie tourniquets and grasp bloody hands. I want to learn the Last Rites by heart.

Passages like these feel odious at first, wildly privileged. They seem to make tragedy into a tourist attraction, commodify suffering instead of rejecting it as those who have experienced it would urge anyone to do. But upon encountering this sentiment again and again, the reader has no choice but to begin to understand it. Riippi’s speaker wants to live—and so might you, if you’re warm and safe somewhere now. It is only that Riippi is not afraid to say so.

This is a sensation that occurs more and more as you enter the book’s later pages: Riippi simply has no fear of how he will be perceived.  Perhaps the most recurring image in Because is the narrator’s grandfather pounding a nail into a cedar tree with his bare hand. It is a fitting metaphor for the work Joseph Riippi has done with this book. It hurts, a lot, to read something so raw, composed with few tools besides human desire. But once you have finished—once the proverbial nail is in the tree—it is even more difficult to get it back out, to forget a book as open and rending as this.


[1] In another example from 1997, Wallace called David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress “a magical book, not because it alternates between incredible intellectual stunt-pilotry and pathos but because it manages to marry the two in a way that—I mean, that’s what my dream is, to someday be able to do something like that.” KCRW Bookworm interview, 1997. ~20:30.

Dennis James Sweeney is the author of What They Took Away, winner of the 2013 CutBank Chapbook Contest. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon. Find him here.
1 Comment
January 24th, 2014 / 10:00 am