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Featured Reviews & Poems
Stacie M. Kiner. Finishing Line Press: Georgetown, KY., 2021.
In Stacie M. Kiner’s Inventory lost loves and loved-ones circle in a whirl of remembering. These moments are the painful ones most of us would like to forget, but Kiner reveals how these are life’s key moments we must never let go.
Though the sense of longing is powerful here for past loves, the immediacy of unforgettable intimate moments strikes with passion, a fever of pleasure, an enveloping of all senses. The allusions can be direct, as in “God and Morphine”: “Sex became difficult. / All I could do / was float on the bed / dazed . . . drawing crazy hearts / on her cheek”; or in “The Only Faith”: “It was easy after that, / turning you into an altar-- / believing sex / was the only faith.” Kiner also excels at subtly capturing moving and erotic detail. This particularly comes to light in “The Only Faith”: “scotch and ice / sliding down my arm, / melting between / your clinched teeth” but also in “All the Ways to Want Things” as the poem’s narrator reflects on a past lover: “Our world . . . / unbuttons itself. . . . // . . . a sun-warmed Key lime / sliced in half / its juice on your tongue. / Your husband gone. . . .”
Another sense of loss that soulfully permeates many poems captures the relationship between the poet’s narrator and father. This is especially true in “Parachute,” where the aging figure is shown slipping deeper into diminishment, perhaps dementia, a deflating of his existence (“he stopped getting / what he wanted / then stopped caring / then stopped noticing”) and even more powerfully in “Winding the Watch,” as the poem observes “Covering mirrors / in the gradual / dismantling / of his brain.”
This poem, as do many, highlight Kiner’s striking ability to create a dialogue of inquiries between the poet and the reader, an ocean of questions that seem more like assertions that cut directly to the core. The line “Isn’t this what happens, / resuscitating time, / wanting to wind / a watch / that doesn’t wind?” captures so much of what’s at the heart of “Winding the Watch,” the reversal of roles between parent and child as years pass, the complicated sense of guilt that overwhelms as one sees the inevitably of losing a parent.
In “The Way Love Sometimes” the short lines accent so much of our hours lost, of time’s passing: “I wonder / how much / can rivers swallow, / how much / of my life / do I have / to remember— / the half that is gone / or the half I think / remains?” Consistently Kiner uses short lines to create a soft staccato punch that hammers a drumbeat, accenting the passage of days, the birth of loss, the recall of forgetting.
This theme also resonates in the book’s title poem as the narrator asks, “Now that your envelope / of silence / will never be opened, / what did it take / to not become / tomorrow?” Thoughts linger on a box of ashes, ashes spread in gardens, kept in backpacks, and linger longer in memories, such as the “third home” with “wheelchairs aligned like planets.”
This dialogue of inquiries also appears in the form of celebration (tinged with subtle melancholy). In “Venetian Pool” we are asked to consider “Of what else / are we made / but / steam streaming / off trees . . . // the bicycle / rusting / in the rain?” And in “Continuous” the narrator wonders “As everything moves / against forgetting, / will the river / keep count . . . remembering the body. . . ?” Moreover, “Noche Buena Miami, FL. 2010” reveals both contemplation and humor: “Wasn’t that the night / someone left the cake out / in the rain?”
Rain and water are often central metaphors here, liquid slowly making its way through structures one drop at a time. Kiner’s lines reveal worlds held in “buckets of water / that fill on the floor,” “bowls of sadness / . . . filling / with rain,” and “a cracked slate roof / in a home with bowls / filling. . . .” The emotions, like the water, seep through and hint at an emotional and intellectual landscape that soaks through us, that both invigorates and uncovers.
All poems in Inventory resonate powerfully; Kiner’s voices are soft but necessary voices that will make all readers grapple with the unanswered questions that carry us through our lives.
Particularly Dangerous Situation
by Patti White, Arc Pair Press, Tacoma, WA, 2020.
The start of this Alabama odyssey, a novella, is told in a melodic and cyclical way. Yet its content is both and neither. The story is specific and general, told by eight tattered, deranged people. The reader relies on what these characters have or may not have seen because of a barrage of enormous, surreal, and terrifying tornados and storms.
In fact, the irrational juxtaposition of images fits the definition of surrealism. There are excruciating noises, too, and disparate body parts flying through the sky and things human that haven’t been seen, heard, smelled, felt or tasted yet.
The first voice before the storm, Weatherman, announces that “Buildings will disappear. Water will be contaminated. The social order will collapse.”
Carleen Hicks, the next narrator says, “the power went and I could smell the electric sizzle in the walls. And oh the howling.” And when the wind arrives “boards ripping and popping and then the barbeque grill hit the siding...maybe some bones breaking...” Next, “the rain was coming through the ceiling.”
“The roads all sideways and the lines blurred,” reports the next character, Colonel Stanton, who deployed crews for rescue and recovery. “When we drove to Mississippi, we ended up in Louisiana. The trucks went on through like Mississippi wasn’t there...Mississippi is gone...I don’t have any words for what happened there.”
A Mexicano who worked the fields, narrator Juan Reyes, shows an intensely focused, binocular view. When he comes out of the carniceria, “it” was “a poblano swollen and charred...the sky all the wrong colors. It made me sick and I fell on my knees in the parking lot.”
Juan Reyes expresses real and trauma-induced visions: “Across the street the paint store exploded and the power lines snapped and whipped and sparked and everything was coming apart. I crawled through rattlesnakes. The traffic signals dropped like vultures...”
Everett Davis, who considers himself a mathematical and scientific mind has visions of the animal life after the storms are over. “Ambient light from fires on the horizon. And things gleaming in the bushes. Shining eyes. Feral cats or coyotes slinking along...a possum hissing near the dumpster.”
Vesuvia Morris, a sixth narrator, is concerned with the insects, and offers the sense of touch to the novella. “I waited out the second storm in a Japanese restaurant that was abandoned and open to the wind. The sushi station in back was loud with flies and yellow jackets so I sat near the door.” She “wrapped up in a tablecloth” and she felt “chilled. Like seaweed in the ocean. Like shaved ice and dead fish and sticky rice.”
Lila Jane Smith, trapped in a dental chair when the storms begin, and left to watch everything fall and crash around her, is haunting, as she tells her story: “I am a flying monkey screeching through the clouds. I hear bells clang like a metal drum breaking my ears...sometimes things hit me and I look at my skin for bruises but what I see is shine.”
Tallulah Ballou, late in the story, walks towards a broken library. She comes down a hill “into a chaos of insulation and roofing tiles. Crushed cars in the parking lot... I got lost in Faulkner’s woods, a path forked the wrong way, and oh the mosquitoes and gnats of that magnolia afternoon.” In a commentary, she says, “every plot is subordinate to weather, to summer heat and rain, to the way our bodies respond in the face of barometric pressure.
Earlier in the story, Tallulah Ballou sums up this post-apocalyptic odyssey with uncanny musing: “I am living in a postmodern novel and all the disasters we simulated have come true and still we are not prepared.”
--Mary Jane Ryals
Here on Rue Morgue Avenue
Cynie Cory. Hysterical Books Press: Tallahassee, FL, 2018.
The poet Cynie Cory springs word-songs like hot hail from the sky in Here on Rue Morgue Avenue, a collection of almost-sonnets, almost cantos, that grab language by the gills, that fling stanzas skyward into a fiery stratosphere.
Often the fire in the sky is a pre-apocalypse or post-apocalypse marker for the setting or “atmosphere” of each poem that screams just above the ground like a nuclear missile. Cory gives a nod to Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro in the book’s acknowledgements, more than likely because this collection similarly explores a postapocalyptic landscape, except Cory’s is of the heart, mind, and soul. Two poems here actually tap Johnson’s novel directly: “Fiskadoro Revisited” and “Fiskadoro Last Seen.” In the former, the images and mind are exploding with “. . . the whole accordion, the plot / of dirt at my feet. According to noon, / there’s no more room. . . . / The lover is a robber, aborted / perfume. What day is it the stars collide?” In the latter poem, the explosions continue: “What see? What me? Impose the last drought, / thermonuclear assault. Winter climbs / over us, snaps shut the lake.”
Throughout the collection, these images of a charred landscape create their own strange momentum, snagging the reader into the strong, dark magic of her poetry. In “Turn and Face the Strange” “There’s a war in you. . . . / We’re all in chains. It’s cruel the way you tune / the range of your vermilion rage. . . . / Gunned / into a bunker that’s home, another // country you moan. . . .” The playful rhyme of “home” and “moan” here gives a wonderful contrast to the poem’s somber images, and this game of rhyme glows at the end of each poem. Every piece closes with a rhyming or slant-rhyme couplet: “. . . redundant, stunned, / anonymous, promiseless—ill-tongued”; “Hurry, courage is the stage / of the mind without a verse iced in blades”; “Dislodge the bilious spleen. / The mind is an after-lock of being.”
In “Reactor Tractor” the images and language sing together with true, raw power. The reader follows this tractor’s furrows into the burning, bright light: “I want the roof, no sky louder than dogs. / I can’t say what caused it, an atomic / split. God’s silhouette disappeared now lost.” And we are left with this: “Without vision winter’s in place. / The invasion by the United States.”
Cynie Cory has yet again graced us with a vibrant, provocative, and dynamic collection.
Avenue of Champions
Clay Blancett. Hysterical Books Press: Tallahassee, FL, 2017.
In Clay Blancett’s first novel Avenue of Champions the reader is taken on a fascinating odyssey through, not Homer’s Mediterranean Sea, but the streets and back alleys of Richmond, Virginia.
Our vessel is not Odyssey’s Homeric galley but one of the many stake body grapple trucks in Richmond’s fleet of municipal solid waste collection vehicles. The book’s narrator doesn’t spear cyclopes but instead stabs at tall piles of garbage with his pitchfork. Blancett gives us a true insider’s glimpse into this strange and striking world, exotic in its own weird way.
The novel’s first-person protagonist is a stranger here too. A home construction carpenter before the Great Recession hit, he desperately needs a job to maintain custody of his two children; his ex-wife would like him permanently out of the picture. However, he gets hired as a temp for the city’s waste management crew and bravely faces this culture and characters, allowing him to eke out a living and enjoy weekends with his young son and daughter.
His love for his kids shines powerfully in the narrative. In the chapter titled “River” he takes his kids on a little adventure to a nearby wooded waterway where the three of them enjoy a picnic lunch. Blancett’s ability to write vividly about the natural world mightily shows through here:
“About halfway up a fallen tree trunk it sat, blue and fierce and big as a cat: a perching Kingfisher. . . . It eyeballed us, electric blue Mohawk flaring. . . . We got inside twenty-five yards when he issued his machine gun call again and took off. . . . Finally in a shocking blue burst, he went straight up between the tree limbs and disappeared into the sky.”
In great contrast to this landscape Blancett, of course, also immerses us completely into the world of garbage, its smells, textures, sights, and sounds. With his crewmates on any given truck, he wrestles with piles of refuse as bravely as any Greek soldier in the Illiad fought on a battlefield:
“The sun cut long knives of shadow and light sideways through the vaulting trees on either side of the opening. . . . We’d stopped by a pile of treated fencing which had obviously not come from the house it was behind. . . . I spotted couches, mattresses, televisions; various piles. Karl had mounted the seat above the cab, cigar smoke billowing above his ball cap like a halo and swung the boom around; he dropped it open on top of the pile and crushed it like a sleeve of saltines in a child’s fist. Shards of green salt-treated pine and shattered spruce flew everywhere. The claw rose up in the air and into the back.”
Avenue of Champions may have what some readers might call a “memoir-shape” instead of a class tension-driven plotline; nevertheless, the details here about life behind the scenes for these rugged and feisty sanitation workers create a page-turning momentum that becomes more and more fascinating chapter after chapter. Clay Blancett has made a strong debut with this gritty novel; readers will be pleased to ride along beside him in Richmond’s ragged but steady garbage trucks.
Questions from My Daughters
I. Why Do We Need Sadness?
--Alli, age 14
I think of Son Thomas, bluesman, grave digging understudy
of a one-armed gravedigger. He’d drive down from Leland
and play for us on Fridays when not sculpting human skulls
with river bank clay, sticking in loose teeth from a deep jar
he kept on a shelf, shaping a new look for sadness. Sadness
builds the juke joint. Joy cuts the rug. At the Lebanese
rib-joint in Clarksdale at the crossroads, joy and sadness feast
on the same pecan-smoked pork, then wait by the ditch
for a dude to roll down the window of his Cadillac at midnight,
pedaling glory. But nobody waits for sadness, let alone
with a weirdly tuned guitar and a black cat bone stitched inside
their coat pocket. Why do we need sadness? We don’t.
Like weather, sadness just is. Like weather, sadness is what
we’re working with, the mojo, the adios, the unforeseen
logos, the tightrope anti-dope for a snake-bit Mississippi.
II. Is It Scientifically Proven That Dinosaurs Said “Roar”?
-- Sofia, age 13
Not unlike the river that separates
Vicksburg, Mississippi from Delta,
Louisiana, home of Daiquiri Stop,
there’s a swift gap between Hollywood
and reality, and yet another between
what’s perceived and what exists
beyond our limits, and this further
jeopardized by the many-layered
obfuscations of dust. My guess: Giganotosaurus,
ole Claw, ole Three-Finger, coo’d
like a ten-ton pigeon, a throaty
welling up from early earth, notes
of root and cave river. A sub-woofed
ululation so righteous it made the horizon
twitch the way a cow’s back
shakes off horseflies. Or maybe its cry
was in proportion to its brain, the kind
of refined frequency that steers
bats to mosquitos, turns a lost
hound home. Like Chagall’s violin,
like chickens and rain in Patterson,
New Jersey, so much depends on
distance, how you bridge it, how you climb
into an ancient skin, sniff around
creek banks and tree tops with a snout
three feet long, scanning valleys
through eyes the width of footballs.
How round the day in its pre-fossil
mist and leafiness, free of drink
machines and Teen Vogue. Where
to go with each star a pilot, each
corner a cornerstone? Sure as rain,
sure as the ache for dinner
and friends and home, you have to
find your register, the sound
you make, your call, your song.
III. Why Don’t We Just Talk about Politics?
--Darbi, age 11
Not the question to ask over family reunion dumplings,
though she means to steer talk away from the Baptist
vs. Episcopal Church. Not wanting to juju the potluck,
I keep my mouth shut. To my right, my uncle,
a Vietnam Vet. To my left, our cousin, raised in England,
gay and proud. O family navigations! O tender steps!
O black and white children singing happy birthday
to the same Diabetic grandmother! Here’s to taking
none of it for granted, neither u-brown’m rolls
nor turnip greens, not the Lebanese mailman
nor the judge talking hunting dogs with his nephew,
a cannabis farming statistician. We’re all here
at the Ag Center, our way forward lit by the match-tips
of history, safest on smooth, on common ground.
So no, we don’t talk politics. Unless it’s one-on-one.
Unless it’s election year. Unless there’s beer involved.
Unless it’s a bad idea. Unless one leaves a clutch
of campaign signs and bumper stickers in a washtub
by the front door that another, tower of messy
plates in hand, mistakes for a shallow garbage can.
Featured writers/Featured Prose
WORK PERFORMED IN SUPPORT OF A WRITING HABIT
Man with a big belly in a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt leans on a newel post at the foot of stairs leading up to a scruffy foursquare. Winter wind nudges me along Ormond Street. It’s the kind of weather you don’t want to be out working in. He’s delivering phone books. He curses those stairs. Something about Christ on a crutch.
Once I did that.
Once I waited tables at a Bible camp.
Once I clerked in a library.
Once I assisted at a daycare in a bowling alley, cigarette smoke fog-like over me and all the munchkins.
Once I was a barista in the steam and squeak of an espresso shop and I laughed falsely — nearly every day — at my boss’s jokes. That’s work, too.
Once I folded wool sweaters at a stand-alone shop. We could see the mall proper, that oasis, but we were not allowed to go anywhere for lunch. We sweater-folders ate our smashed tuna sandwiches knee-to-knee in the utility room, the fusty odor of a mop bucket overtaking the tuna. Sometimes I was banished to the rickety balcony to sew labels into sweaters on an old black Singer sewing machine. The word sweatshop comes to mind, but I’m not recalling this to align myself with oppressed people. I knew or thought I knew all along that privilege was mine, waiting down the highway.
Once I sold handguns and Virginia hams at a roadside stand. The men who came in to own the handguns with their eyes made my skin crawl. They were excited by the guns, as if by porn.
Once I cleaned houses. Big houses at Big Sky. Places where the walk-in-closets were lined with twenty pair of cowboy boots.
Once I wrote real estate ads and answered the phone for the realtors in their stilettos and false eyelashes.
Once I cooked the evening meals for paying customers on raft trips.
Once I sold Christmas trees.
Once I taught aerobics classes.
Once I picked potato bugs off potato plants and drowned the bugs in a coffee can of kerosene. I traded that labor for a burlap bag of wheat berries that lasted most of the winter of 1976.
Once I pruned apple trees in February, my cheeks chapped, my trapezius muscles seized up as if in cartoon shock.
Once I picked apples.
Once I picked cherries.
Once I picked pears, but that only lasted a few hours. I couldn’t stand the sticky pesticide that clung to my hands and hair.
A friend from that era used to say, “Enlightenment can be found at the end of a shovel.” He died of an auto-immune disease. I can still hear him playing his flute among the lodgepole pine. I can picture him, in the brassy light of a lantern, reading Lord of the Rings to kids we knew. He taught me how to use a misery whip. How to hoist a bag of grain on my shoulder to save my back. How to ration my breath while hiking up a steep switchback in the Enchantment Range. He taught me attitude I’d call tough, or stubborn.
Now, a young neighbor tends her roses and says to me, “Don’t you like to be outside? I never see you outside working.” Times like that I zip it. Times like that it comes home to me how little my neighbor, or anyone, knows me. The exhaustion that colonized my body or the euphoria of hard work, the way it fixes in your mind and sinews. I still dream about those apples. Winesaps. Reds and Golds. Braeburns and Cameos. In the dream my bag is always full and my bin is always empty.