Book Reviews

The Feral Condition

Gaylord Brewer. Negative Capability Press: Mobile, AL. 2018.

ISBN: 978-0-94254-440-4

 

Using a backdrop of four starkly different locales, Gaylord Brewer crafts a journey replete with fables of a man observing and interacting with the natural world, before coming to terms with his own ferality. Through language and imagery both striking and candid, Brewer writes to discover and convey universal truths from his observations of the mundane.

 

The series of bestiary begin with the narrator taking measures to ensure reverential treatment of the natural world, in a sense imitating pure awe; the same as any human might experience when encountering nature. It is not until the second part of the collection, entitled Catalonia, where we see the poet first grapple with the shame of his fondness for the natural world, noted in “The Woman”:

 

“I hoped she would let me pass so I needn’t announce my ignorance / I confessed the berries I had foraged, the handful of wild rosebuds cut for a vase.”

 

Here, we see the narrator’s guilt of disrupting the natural order - ripping flowers up from the earth and gathering berries to consume. The poet’s feelings continue to evolve with the collection, as he begins to recognize the mortality and fragility of the physical, and learns to treasure the unseen. This subtle hint of remorse is amplified in “Pyrenees Wild Iris”, in which the poet picks wildflowers off a mountain top for his own joy, likening himself to a slayer. The words themselves hum like William Carlos Williams’ work with its casually apologetic tone.

 

“I should have let them be

and done no harm, but I couldn’t

help myself, could not:

I had to have them.”

 

While each poem reads as meditative, the undercurrent that persists is one of a gnawing guilt and an acknowledgment of humanity’s hunger for consumption and violent ownership. As the collection advances, Brewer’s words shift to highlight this preference over brutality:

 

            “Let’s ignore the routine hell of flies

            haloing the donkey’s nostrils and mouth.

            They’re not pretty, and do we not seek

            the picturesque, a narrative of    consolation?”

 

It is a harsh reminder that beauty remains in our grip of an ideal meant to shield us from the grit of reality. The poem, entitled “Exquisite Human Suffering”, ends with a sardonic showcasing of hikers as they stamp upon thousands of ants carelessly, illustrating a tendency to devalue the perceived unimportant:

 

“What choice but that the big lives stomp

the small? There, just ahead, a spotted fawn

Shoulder-high in mountain clover!

A goldfinch greets with melancholy song!

Meanwhile, every step another bloodbath.”

 

Brewer brilliantly divides the collection into four stages of being and observance. Each quarter highlights an aspect of man as he learns to reconcile a jaded understanding of himself with his natural position within the world. The poems themselves are carefully pieced in such a way to effectively communicate the structure of transformation, which builds the confrontation of human cynicism and admiration to an apex at the end of “The Owl”:

 

“Foolish man. You know nothing

of the wild world. Go from this place.

Go home, if you’ve yet one to go to.”

 

Finally back home, we see the narrator delight in the regain of control before ultimately coming to terms with his hypocritical folly. It is the ending destination, however, of Costa Rica which finds the narrator having completed an arc, existing in acceptance of one’s small place in the ticking rhythm of the natural world. Brewer’s last lines echo this realization of perpetual cruelty blended into humor and beauty that is the feral condition and leaves his reader a simple outcome amidst all anguish: to rejoice and persist.

                                                                       --Noelle Kennady

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

To Start an Orchard

Michael Hettich. Press 53: Winston-Salem, NC, 2019.

 

Bluer and More Vast

Michael Hettich. Hysterical Books Press: Tallahassee, FL, 2018.

 

            Michael Hettich is an extraordinary poet. In his two most recent collections, To Start an Orchard and Bluer and More Vast, Hettich’s brilliance shines brightly. What especially makes his work vibrant is his unique blend of vividly capturing the everyday quotidian moments of his narrators and characters and mixing these flashes with a unique and absorbing surrealism.

            In “Ode” from Bluer and More Vast, one of the book’s many prose poems, the opening stanza describes a spacey kid-brother who would “take the wrong bus or walk the wrong direction.” However, the poem’s narrator begins the second stanza in quite a startling new direction:

 

                        “One day he hid himself inside his best friend, who was headed to the movies

with his parents. He and his friend sat together as though they were one little boy,

eating buttered popcorn, covering their eyes when the monster in the film chased

the family through the woods. And my brother saw us, his family, up there on the screen, he saw the monster grab our sister as though he would eat her. . . .”

 

This unique transformation of spacey-brother to a brother who literally takes over another’s space makes the reader do a doubletake and question the vivid, seemly-mundane reality the poet has initially unfolded.

            In Hettich’s newer book, To Start an Orchard, a work that sticks with more “traditional-shape” poems, he continues his striking and engaging tack. For example, in “The Lion” the poet peppers us with everyday details in his opening lines: “. . . someone else’s idea / of a life, with rain pouring in through the window / . . . while the TV / blares cop shows.” However, it isn’t long before this beginning twists into new and frightening vision: “. . . birds shaped like private facts-of-life / fly around, shitting on the open books.” Again, we find the character transformed, this time into a lion and then a plant: “I could make my friends dare their heads into my mouth. / That felt like happiness”; “. . . he’s a flower for the rest of the day, / ignoring the bees of his own imagination, / the honey they make from his body, the pollen / they gather from his eyelashes. . . .” The reader is seduced by these turns in the poem’s narrative, willing to go anywhere with a writer who so gracefully captures the world around him before taking us into strange other-worlds.

            A new Michael Hettich book, to me, is always an event to be savored. Pick up both these collections. You will not be disappointed by the landscapes he continuously and vibrantly brings to life. 

 

                                                                                    --Michael Trammell

 

 

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.   

 

                                                                                    --Michael Trammell

 

 

Privilege

by Claire Matturro, Moonshine Cove Publishing, 2019.

 

In the prologue of this fast-paced and beautifully written mystery novel, country girl Ruby Randolph--whose boyfriend Billy has been arrested and whose trailer has been burned down--shows up homeless, barefoot and braless at criminal defense attorney Gardner Randolph’s office.

 

Gardner allows her to stay with him, he defends her in court, and they eventually have sex. They marry and she gets a law degree.

But by chapter one, fifteen years later, we realize she’s working with her bully, abuser and cheater of a husband, Gardner, in a Southwest Florida law firm.

            One late afternoon, Ruby takes a trail to the Myakka River and meets a cop named Hank who is tender and kind. Meanwhile, Gardner is picking up a younger woman that same night.

Billy is still in jail, and he’s pissed off that Ruby got away while he is stuck in prison. She promises to get him out, and soon.

 

Meanwhile, the law firm seems to be in trouble. One partner has stolen a little over $200 from the petty cash drawer. Gardner tells Ruby he’s going to take over the law firm. Unbeknownst to Gardner, the several partners want to oust Gardner from the firm.

 

Soon after, Gardner is discovered dead in the married couple’s bedroom. Then, the cop covering the case shows up at the door--it’s Hank.

 

Hank is about the most honorable guy around, yet even as they return to their affair, he wonders if she’s the killer. Ruby wonders if she can trust Hank.

 

Hank finds no signs of a break in. He’s not sure about Ruby, who he truly loves. He’s concerned about her bankrupted law firm, Billy, Gardner’s lover from the law firm, Tally, and the whole sketchiness of Ruby’s past.

 

Soon, it looks like Ruby will be going to prison--if she doesn’t get killed first.

And then the novel’s ending hits, which slaps you in the face, yet you wonder how you’ didn’t understand it from hints in the middle of the book.

 

This story juggles so many possibilities that you cannot stop turning pages.

 

Claire Matturo has written seven novels, and this one is the one I like the most. It’s complex and scary and some of the characters’ actions definitely shock and surprise. All scenes in the book could truly happen in this day and age.

Nothing like a hot, sticky, sex-filled smart and gritty novel to get you through the night.

 

                                                                        --Mary Jane Ryals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

                                                                                    --Michael Trammell

AR

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