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Review: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

by Blake Z. Rong

“The splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed,” shouted Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in Il Futuro in Fiamme, his Futurist Manifesto written in 1909. The opening scene of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers evokes this bold declaration: a vision of a sleek Italian motorcycle, screaming across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. The hero, Reno—leather-clad and fearless—hits 130 miles per hour, her record-setting attempt.

The Flamethrowers is Kushner’s second novel, a National Book Award nominee, heaped with praise when it debuted in 2013. (“Scintillatingly alive,” wrote James Wood for The New Yorker.) From the ultimately doomed energy of the Futurism movement, the novel draws its energy, placing it sixty years later in the turbulence of the 1970s and across two continents. It co-opts Futurism’s nihilistic, misogynist attitude with a defiantly feminist slant.

The year is 1977. Twenty-something Reno rides her motorcycle from the Nevada city of her namesake to New York, seeking to expand her own art career. Like so many artists of her age, she’s operating under the belief that everyone, eventually, getspulled into the city’s orbit. Drifting from one Lower Manhattan neighborhood to another, she befriends a litany of eccentrics, documenting but never accentuating their peculiarities.

Reno meets and falls in love with Sandro Valera, a fellow artist, but also the heir to the fortune of Moto Valera. It is a massive Italian manufacturing conglomerate that not only manufactured Reno’s motorcycle but also harvests rubber in the Amazon with brutal efficiency, transforming the Valeras into a capitalist dynasty. (Sandro’s father, documented in various intervals, falls in with a crowd of budding futurists atop their primitive motorcycles, later killing Germans in World War I.) The company wants her to set a speed record, so the two journey to northern Italy. And much like Gianni Agnelli, who ruled over the automaker Fiat, the Valera family is glamorous, alluring, cloistered, intimidating, and ultimately disdainful of the American girl, who cannot begin to fathom such riches.

But violent political forces are lurking in plain sight, clashing with riot police and fascists alike, conducting kidnappings of capitalists, ready to smash Valera’s unfettered capitalism. Protesting the failed dreams of a mechanized future that has eluded the working class.

Marinetti saw this future reflected back at him from the snakelike chrome of exhaust pipes. Thanks to his breathless manifesto, Futurism seemed modern, fast-paced, exciting: race cars! Motorbikes! Going faster and faster, soaring higher on the new airplane, a revolution in technology, until the thrill of speed replaces the fear of death. The future was machinery and speed, impersonality reflected in mechanization, and shades of the Übermensch: man revolutionized, enhanced by technology and free will.

But it was also violence: patriotism by any means, nationalism formed along racial barriers, misogyny and anti-feminism and the glories of war, which Marinetti and his merry band of artists deemed “the only cure for the world.” Feminism was to be destroyed. The future was death by machinery, obliterating the old world: Marinetti’s “destructive gesture of the anarchists” would tear down libraries, museums, academia, what The New Yorker called “upheaval for upheaval’s sake.” In 1910, Marinetti littered Venice with leaflets calling for its “old, collapsing and lecherous palaces” to be torn down and fill the canals, claiming that this would allow the city to dominate the Adriatic Sea—a brash act of performance art reminiscent of the works that Reno encounters in New York.

When World War I erupted four years later, the Futurists got a chance to see this revolution unfold with deadly efficiency—for a few brief years, they seemed to get what they wanted.

Reno’s world is art and revolution, machinery and restlessness, and the always-implicit threat of violence. From a New York night with Saturday night specials drawn to a piazza of rioters, and atop a speeding motorcycle. Eventually, Reno escapes the trappings of luxury and finds herself among the proletariat, navigating both state-sponsored violence and female exploitation with a certain aloofness: what can she do, really? Later, Kushner details an artist named Ronnie, one of Reno’s lovers and simultaneously a source of comfort and rejection, staging an exhibition consisting of photographs of battered women, who he says beat themselves up, a preemptive strike against domestic violence.

So too Futurism attracted these young, restless men who didn’t know how to fit into this existing world, choosing instead to burn it all down—a philosophy that never dies.

What the Futurists were particularly good at, more than actually creating a coherent movement, was writing manifestos. Boy, did they write a lot of manifestos—about music, cinema, sex, noises, food production, and the hygienic benefits of a war. Kushner too declares her own bold truths, shouting brazen and stirring calls to arms, philosophical musings on the perception of emotion and the alienation. In long and sometimes plodding paragraphs, her characters issue forth twisting monologues that could never hold a real-world attention span; the aforementioned Ronnie spends seven pages detailing an around the world sailing experience he embarked on when he was 12, joining a strange older couple who may or may have not performed sexual favors. No matter. The novel’s overall tone relies more on artifice than plot, seemingly taking its time to get anywhere, really, its little manifestos far less impactful as Marinetti’s verbiage.

Futurism never caught hold, petering out with Marinetti’s death at the age of 67 in 1944. Aligned with Italy’s Fascist government, he tried to find a patron in Mussolini, but the dictator found himself bored with art, and propped up a diverse array of movements to keep them loyal to the regime. Futurism never found the success of movements like Dada or Bauhaus, never expanded its bleak philosophy, and rejected new forms of art like photography or film. Reflections on Futurism struggle to downplay the Fascist, misogynist tendencies, such as a 2014 exhibition at the Guggenheim, hand-picking its surviving art amongst the wreckage of attempted violence.

Instead, Kushner takes these elements of destruction and misogyny and co-opts them through her female protagonist.

In 1977, the city of New York fell into a blackout that would eventually last two long summer days. Riots and looting ensued. Escaping Italy, Reno makes it back to New York just in time to witness the arson and stolen televisions, wandering aimlessly and impersonally like De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver, minus his violence. From one dark hell of unrest to another, Kushner captures that kind of energy that we can barely fathom in a gentrified Manhattan—vivacious and sharp, as vivid and illuminating as an uncontrollable flame.

Hardcover $14.47

Paperback: 383 pages

Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (January 14, 2014)

ISBN-13: 978-1439142011

 

 

Book Review: Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories by Kelly Barnhill

by Cameron Finch

Fusing fantasy, horror, gothic romance, and the supernatural, the stories of Minnesota-based Kelly Barnhill host a menagerie of undead magicians, poetic corpses, haunted witches, and evasive female pirates. These stories are not set in our modern time, and yet their landscapes feel strangely familiar, as if recalling and revamping fairy tales whispered to us long ago. The stories collected in Barnhill’s newest book, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, are at their best when the heartbreakingly bizarre is juxtaposed against quaint, domestic charm.

The name Kelly Barnhill may ring a bell due to her success in the children’s literature community last year. Her tenderly magical novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, won the 2017 Newbery Medal, and tells the story of a girl who is accidentally given magical powers as a baby and must wrangle her gift before others try to destroy her. Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, published by Algonquin Books in February 2018 as a short story collection for “adult readers,” will surely appeal to young adult readers, too, or anyone who enjoys good old fantasy and magic in the same vein as Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman.

In the story, “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch,” the widow Mrs. Sorensen becomes the talk of the town when she shows up to church with an unexpected date, a Sasquatch. It is obscene, it is a scandal, and yet, Mrs. Sorensen has never looked happier in her life. You, the reader, are instantly pulled into the incredulous scene as an observer and you may even begin to doubt what you are reading! In fact, when I looked into her window the other day, I saw her around the dinner table with two dogs, one raccoon, one porcupine, one lynx, and one black bear? The priest will have a ball about that, won’t he? A bear drinking wine out of a goblet! How absurd!

Against the well-observed small town unraveling into gossip is set the depiction of a woman on the hunt for companionship and sexual pleasure. Despite its fantastical exaggerations, the aging woman’s desires and fears give weight and pathos to an otherwise quirky tale. Similarly, “The Dead Boy’s Last Poem,” the story of a girl, who obsesses to the point of starvation over poems bequeathed to her by a dead boy poet, is also a tender portrait of grief, passion and social-rule-bending.

The material is often morbid but the writing is always elegant, witty, and laced with sharp philosophical observations and sometimes startling descriptions. In “Dreadful Young Ladies,” a child riding down a slide grips the burlap sack beneath him “the way a skydiver hangs onto his defective parachute before his final bounce upon a pitiless ground.” In “Elegy for Gabrielle—Patron Saint of Healers, Whores, and Righteous Thieves,” the narrator, Gabrielle’s father, preaches truths: “To be human is to lie, after all. Our minds tell lies to our hearts and our hearts tell lies to our souls.” Confrontations with the lies we tell ourselves and the consequential results of our decisions are at the heart of many of the stories, and Barnhill has an acute eye and ear for the pleasures, pains, and confusions of being human, even in the most magical of settings.

The pièce de résistance, which takes up over one-third of the book’s real estate, is the novella “The Unlicensed Magician,” which won Barnhill the World Fantasy Award in 2016. The story introduces readers to the secret life of an invisible girl named Sparrow, who was once left for dead and can heal others’ pain in an instant. Previously sold separately as an individual story, the novella’s book jacket explains, “There were twenty magical children born that year. Nineteen, if you count the one that died. The Minister ordered that the nineteen children be shipped to the Tower to be worked and drained to nothing, and that the dead child be thrown on the rubbish heap, and never spoken of again. But the dead baby had other plans. When the half-drunk junk man witnesses the half-decayed corpse becoming a living, breathing, healthy baby, he knows at once that he must protect the child from the clutches of the Minister. Enlisting the help of the formidable egg woman and the sagacious constable, he manages to keep the existence of the child a secret. But children grow. And so does magic. And secrets long to be told.”

So goes the modern fairy tale, told in alternating chapters of a dystopian present day and a long- forgotten past of freedom and dreams. Through the unique characters’ heroism, heartbreak, and wit, Barnhill poetically reveals humanity’s hunger for language, for connection, for visibility, and for love.

In her acknowledgments, Barnhill says she finds it a miracle “that in this frenetic and bombastic and self-centered age, [there are] legions of people who can and do return to the quietness of the page.” Yet, she makes it so easy for readers to tumble headfirst into her stories, because she writes of worlds so unlike our own. There are no cell phones, traffic jams, or social media to distract her characters from living, from dying, from navigating the turbulent trials and tributaries of the places they call home. Perhaps it is this lack of distraction which enhances the magic Barnhill conjures within—the magic that happens when you are pulled into the present fully; when you are beckoned through portals and trapdoors; and flung to the far-reaching quietude of a hushed forest. Dreadful Young Ladies is where Barnhill’s stories wait to be discovered by you.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books (February 20, 2018)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616207977
  • $18.99

 

 

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VCFA’s Hunger Mountain gives a special thanks to our local branch of Bear Pond Books for providing our book reviewing staff members with Advance Reader Copies of Pre-Released titles! Montpelier’s local branch of Bear Pond Books is located on 77 Main St, Montpelier, VT 05602. Bear Pond Books’ selection is also available online: http://www.bearpondbooks.com/.

 

Book Review: Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation

by Paul Daniel Ash

The literary world has been applying the “-punk” suffix to science fiction sub-genres so frequently and for so long that it sometimes verges on self-parody. It all began with cyberpunk, a description of the 80s noir-esque SF of Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and of course William Gibson. This was soon followed by steampunk, a term which came to refer to both retrofuturistic SF and a fashion style that mashes up Victorian and post-industrial elements. In the wake of that has come biopunk, dieselpunk, nanopunk and a host of other -punks: tags for sub-genres and sub-sub-genres proliferating, spread by fans and book marketers but not always universally recognized throughout the industry.

The idea of solarpunk as a distinct genre has only emerged in the last few years. Mostly self-applied by writers of speculative eco-fiction, solarpunk has become as much a philosophical and esthetic stance as it is a term of critique. The proponents of solarpunk present to us a future that works, as much as it may still struggle with the consequences of climate change and rapacious capitalism. What, then, is there to distinguish it from techno-utopianism or post-hippie fantasies like Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia? “There’s an oppositional quality to solarpunk,” wrote Adam Flynn in 2014’s Solarpunk: Notes Toward a Manifesto. “But it’s an opposition that begins with infrastructure as a form of resistance.”

A new anthology, consisting of 19 short stories, ten poems and seven pieces of artwork, is the most recent vehicle to give voice to this nascent movement. Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation came together as the collaboration of Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland, two MFA candidates in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. When they came to Iowa in 2015, as avid readers as well as writers of SF they both lamented the fact that “the environment was an antagonist” in that genre, “already destroyed to the point of no return, or simply not a consideration” (from the “Editors’ Note”). They saw in what was then a small Tumblr coterie the roots of a different kind of near-future SF. And given that near-future SF virtually always means dystopian SF these days, these writers were (to paraphrase William F. Buckley’s description of conservatives) standing athwart science fiction, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it. In 2015, there was as yet no anthology of solarpunk works in English. So, working in what little spare time was available to them as graduate students, Wagner and Wieland commissioned pieces that exemplified the qualities they were seeking, and reviewed over two hundred submissions from around the planet. They launched a successful Kickstarter to complete the project, which was published in August 2017.

The selection of short stories is as eclectic and diverse as the authors, drawing from multiple styles and languages. The masterful Daniel José Older, author of the Shadowshaper and Bone Street Rumba fantasy series, contributes “Dust,” a tale of uprising that plays with fluidity of gender and space-opera tropes to tell an ultimately hopeful story. “The Road to the Sea,” by the Israeli author and Campbell Award laureate Lavie Tidhar, is both elegiac and uplifting. “Boston Hearth Project” by T. X. Watson is an action-packed, propulsive story that imagines a near-future Occupy with augmented reality tech. Iona Sharma’s “Eight Cities” explores faith and consciousness against the backdrop of a Delhi inundated by rivers swollen as a result of a changing climate. And “Speechless Love” by Yilun Fan (translated from Mandarin by S. Qiouyi Lu) tells the story of a relationship between two “stratospherians” in a future where “atmosphere colonization replaced space colonization.”

The inclusion of poetry and visual art in the anthology emphasizes the vision of solarpunk as a movement rather than merely a literary genre. The language in the poems runs the gamut from the technospeak of “Strandbeest Dreams” by Lisa Bradley and José M. Jimenez, to the more traditional SF imagery in “light star sail bound“ by Joel Nathanael, to the flowing lyricism of “The Seven Species” by Aleksei Valentin. The artworks, like the poetry interspersed throughout the anthology, are intricately detailed and somewhat reminiscent of art nouveau: a movement not entirely dissimilar in its evocation of the natural world, its ease with the romantic, and its insistence on being of its historical moment.

In their Note, the anthology’s editors emphasize the importance they placed on including a diversity of voices. Solarpunk is very much a global movement: indeed, the first anthology of solarpunk fiction was published in Brazil in 2012 (with a Kickstarter currently underway to publish an English translation). The true genius of this work lies in its essence as a community project, as a labor of love by writers, artists and editors. It takes more than a buzzy label to make a movement, and the energy of these student-editors – coupled with the outpouring of interest and involvement across national boundaries – suggest that solarpunk may be finding resonance in this often-fearful age.

 

Publisher: Upper Rubber Boot Books (August 29, 2017)

ISBN 978-1937794750, 254 pages

$13.99

 

the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace

by Lindsay Gacad

No matter how outdated or clichéd you think fairy tales have become, their appeal remains undeniable today. The whimsy and call for the suspension of belief, as applied to the mundane of our everyday, grasps at our hearts, evoking a sense of nostalgia and hope.

When I asked the employee at Phoenix Books in Burlington if he had any new poetry collection recommendations, he took me straight to Rupi Kaur. While I am familiar with Kaur’s work and love her poems, I knew I wanted something less popularized. princess was his second choice for me, asking if I already knew Lovelace. I lied and said I did. After seeing the directness of its title, the book’s cover gripped me: striking, black matte with pure white lowercase print, left-justified. As I began to quickly flip through its thick and creamy pages, I was thrust into an emotionally charged adventure that was impossible to turn away from. This is the first poem I landed on when I opened its wondrous pages: “maybe I find it so hard to believe in heaven, because I don’t know if there will be poetry there.”

I didn’t know who Amanda Lovelace was, didn’t know her book the princess saves herself in this one was the 2016 winner of the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Poetry. I didn’t know about her former acclaim or that she’s found grassroots success through her Twitter (@ladybookmad). As a fellow writer and aspiring poet, this is a unique place to write a book review from, a place of minimal previous knowledge of the author, a place of instant admiration and wonder.

In a most modern and innovative way, Amanda Lovelace has used her poetry to take the reigns of one of my most favorite fairy tropes: the princess being saved from her demons. This collection is broken into four parts and presented to us as “the princess, the damsel, the queen, and you”. The first three chapters beautifully weave together the author’s story, exploring her relationships with men, family, friends, society, her body, her writing and herself. We as readers, as women, as humans, can relate to nearly all of the elements of her story.

In “the queen” Lovelace’s words conjure the hazy ups and down of romance and heart-break with poems like, “before he left, he wrapped my heart in layers of barbed wire to make sure that no one else could ever get in, but you were more than willing to bloody your hands for me.”

For her final chapter “you”, Lovelace addresses the reader directly in a poetic love letter, promising that our work in progress (our work, our writing, our selves) is “pending: your own happy ending. – you’ll get there.” It addresses themes of love, family, mourning and empowerment, while keeping the reader both engaged and included. It provides an uplifting template for the stages in our lives, and our faith in each other.

If you’re feeling bombarded by today’s news headlines and the angst of the world’s political unrest, my prescription as an untrained and unlicensed therapist is this poetic journey alongside Amanda Lovelace.

Believe in the fairy tale, her writing style begs of us; her syntax is revelatory, honest and endearing, her collection is a safe place. For the harder and more dreary days, Lovelace’s poetry will deliver on its promise, and remind me that the princess can always undoubtedly save herself.

On her website, Lovelace describes herself as growing up a word-devourer & avid fairy tale lover. She has her B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Sociology. the princess saves herself in this one is her debut poetry collection & the first book in the women are some kind of magic series. A lifelong poetess & storyteller, Lovelace currently lives in New Jersey with her husband, their moody cat.

The second book in the series, the witch doesn’t burn in this one, will be published in 2018.

Lovelace’s poems and their inventive forms make this collection a heartfelt exploration of love for oneself and others.

 

Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2017.

ISBN: 978-1-4494-8641-9, 199 pages,

$14.99

 

Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker

by Ian Haight

Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker.

Selected and Translated by Okla Elliott.

Black Lawrence Press, 2015

There was a person I sat with on grant review panels who would get in a huff over translated works that sat before him. Always there was something wrong with a translation, something missing from a poem that a translator did not get.  And so for five years, no awards were given for a certain translation contest he presided over. After a letter to the foundation sponsoring the contest, awards for translations were given for the contest’s many tiers of prizes, yielding a range of writing I hadn’t realized existed in Korean. Translation fidelity matters, but it is sometimes expressed by the mechanical cohesion of the translation, as well as unity of voice and vision.

This is not to say fidelity is less important than how well a translation works as a poem. It is to say that when reading a collection of translated poems, singular elements of an author’s style, voice, structural practices, and themes—in short, how well a poem is translated in addition to how well a collection of poetry functions mimetically—are easier to evaluate. Blackbirds in September, a collection of poems by German writer Jürgen Becker, selected and translated by Okla Elliott, is an accomplished work, rendering Becker’s voice and aesthetic vision into fluid English.

Blackbirds opens with “In the Wind” (“Im Wind”) from 1993’s Foxtrot in Erfurt Stadium (Foxtrott im Erfurter Stadion):

In the Wind

 

Blackbirds, then other voices. It doesn’t stop

when it snows, when with the snow

a newness comes that is entirely essential this morning. Or how

do you see it? I see the pear tree and how it

(the pear tree) reacts to the wind (to the

wind). This morning, yet again,

the decision fell. War between magpies and crows, only this war,

no trappings, only this clear understanding.

Yet another voice, the next commentator; it’s all about

(yet again) the whole. Are you standing

in the garden? Then you know, tsk tsk, the blackbird

warned above all else, you know, I’ll say it yet

again, in war, in the snow, in the wind.

 

Becker emphasizes the need for clarification in the language: “I see the pear tree and how it/(the pear tree)…”; “it” obviously refers to the pear tree, so clarifying the reference turns “it” into an empty semantic gesture. The “it” is forced into a kind of hollow representational repetition, unlike the recurrence of “to the wind,” which has a rhythmic value.

“Once Again” (“Nochmals”), like many of the poems in Blackbirds, enacts the mind’s search for meaning: “Too much already betrayed. Immediately and later/an eternal searching, and mostly/what’s found: the false.” What’s mostly found is the false, suggesting the potential for the discovery of truth.

In these selected poems, there is no clear indication of what that truth might be, but there is a proposal—made through opposition—of a way to peace in “Soliloquy” (“Selbstgespräch”):

                           …By the shore,

a man, soliloquizing

back and forth—that’s not how

peace is found.

 

Perhaps peace is found in the tranquil iteration of lulling syntax, as in the poem “Renaissance”:

                  Now observe the meadow, not

the photograph, the meadow.

 

The cat, no movement,

and no movement, the blackbird.

 

Rust-colored leaves below the fence.

 

Rust-colored leaves below the fence.

 

And twilight, and wild snow.

 

The quiet snow. In twilight,

the snow falls.

 

Though there is a peacefulness in this language, maybe earned through repetition of imagery, there is far less doubt in subjectivity, and so a primacy seems to be given to objective reality—an important move beyond the representational failings of language. Doubt exists, but its outcomes are clearer. “Tell Me How You’re Doing” (“Sag mir, wie es dir geht”) defines it this way:

Sometimes to smell the nearness of water, or to see

the green sky. But these are just words;

not things or experiences.

 

Finally, language comes to fulfill its practical use of portraying empirical reality and experience. The last poem in the collection, “The Year 1932” (“Jahrgang 1932”)—1932 being the year Becker was born—offers, without any skepticism or hesitation:

                                             …Buried

in the sand, my head, a tower of consciousness;

dig it out,

tracks leading to the Zeitgeist; later

delight, horror—

these are photos:

sea and sand return. Children, new

and blond, run and build in the muck.

 

I am grateful for Elliott’s choice in selecting this poem to end the collection, and for his skillful creation of these poems into English translation. Becker’s belief in reality, his faith in meaning, and his understanding that meaning can be communicated, has value, and originates in consciousness; are all affirmations of human life. These are ideas worthy of gratitude.

 

Dark Water: Melissa Febos’s Haunting New Memoir, Abandon Me

by Cameron Dezen Hammon

Abandon Me — Melissa Febos

Bloomsbury Publishing

February 28, 2017

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.

— Jacques Yves Cousteau

The night I begin reading Abandon Me, Melissa Febos’s new collection of linked essays, I wake from a dream in which I am on a deep-sea dive gone awry. In my final moments, as my diving gear fails, I dictate an essay about drowning to an unknown presence, a presence which I can sense, but is powerless to save me. As I begin to hiccup the dark water, a voice reassures me that my dying will be quick, and I wake up before it is.

That dreams about water are really dreams about sex is a notion given by that old German master of dream semiotics, Sigmund Freud. I’d rather have dreamt of sex than death-by-drowning, frankly, but it’s no wonder I should have such a dream while reading Abandon Me. Febos’s narrator is in the midst of an explosive affair with a married woman who lives in the desert, far from her own coastal home. Early on, the pain of the distance between them reminds Febos of her childhood spent, in part, waiting for her sea captain father to return from months abroad. “When the Captain was home from sea, he woke from nightmares, screaming. When he was gone, my brother and I did. We counted time in waves… The Captain had met… storms [and] pirates. Didn’t real heroes eventually run out of happy endings?” More than twenty years later, Febos waits for her married lover, Amaia, as she “began the slow process of prying her life apart… I wanted to be strong for her but it was already hard to see a happy ending across all those miles. I waited, as I had waited all my childhood, though it never got easier.”

That Febos should love most fiercely those who were least available, invisible, or silenced by the distance of waves, geography, or prior commitments, makes sense. “How could you leave?” she writes, “I asked her again and again. There was no right answer. There was no way to prove that she would not leave again. She grew weary of trying.”

The best memoirs invite their readers into a conversation, ideally one readers are already having. When I picked up Abandon Me, I was asking myself: What is desire, and what is divine? What is romantic love, and what is holy love? And why does romantic love at its most obsessive often mimic spiritual transcendence? Why does it compel otherwise reasonable people to throw away all else for the cause of this love? Think of Romeo & Juliet. Or Tristan and Isolde. This is romance as religion. And though Febos claims in Chapter 1 that as a child she has “no god,” her obsession with Amaia, what Merriam-Webster defines as a persistent disturbing preoccupation, becomes its own kind of religion. A religion she practices with utter focus. “Nine months in love with this woman, I waited: at baggage claim in the airport, for her to call me back, to end her marriage, to promise me that she would be there. There was no distraction. I could not read. I could not write. I could not sleep. It was a despair so furious… [it] set fires… [It] was an animal.”

I was having this conversation about love with myself because two things were happening. I was writing a book about a time when I was losing my faith in the evangelical God of my youth, and also losing faith in romance. I was beginning to see the ways that I had confused divinity with desire. The ways I’d made love into a god, and God into a love. Love always required the pain of distance to really take root in me. The most significant romantic relationships of my life happened across many miles, painfully, through tears and promises. When I fell in love with Christianity, it was the same. I fell in love with what was invisible, but had been promised was on the way. In Ann Carson’s gorgeous translation of the archaic Greek poet Sappho, she describes romantic love as something which “… shook my / mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees / you came and… cooled my mind that burned with longing.” My religious belief cooled my mind the way my long-distance lovers also did.

But like it did for me in love and in religion, distance got old for Febos’s narrator. Amaia lived near the Santa Fe desert — itself a mythic, geographical metaphor for the clash of divine and human — and in the book’s most lyrical scenes the distance between them is closed, and the affair is translated from the mind to the body. In “Leave Marks,” Febos writes, “We first made love in a hotel room in Santa Fe, where the five o’clock sun simmered on the horizon, grazing her shoulders with its fire as she knelt over my body.” What is it but worship when we kneel before a beloved like this? The answer comes quickly, not halfway through the first chapter. After Amaia received a troubling phone call, the narrator offers to read to her from Rilke’s The Book of Hours.

“The book of hours is a book of love poems to God, though Rilke was in love with a married woman when he wrote the them. So I think it must be a book about loving a woman. Maybe every desire is the desire to give ourselves away to some perfect keeper, to be known perfectly, as only a creator could know us…

She writes, “Maybe The Book of Hours,” — and I’d say also, perhaps, Abandon Me — “is about how love makes women into gods.”

But why would Febos, a tattooed, former heroin addict and sex worker (the subject of her first memoir, Whip Smart), lose herself so completely in this affair? She hasn’t had a drink in ten years, she tells us, but this love activates something familiar in her. “I had loved before, but I had never known this mechanical insistence of my own body. It was a physical reaction absent of sense or control…” Twelve-Step recovery programs require the addict to believe in a God of their own understanding. It may be the universe, it may be a higher power, but it must replace the god that was the addictive substance. It must be a god that won’t kill you. Love without sense or control, love made into a god, is no longer love. It’s a weapon wielded most painfully on the self, but perhaps it also has the potential to deliver healing.

“When I say that I lost myself in love, I don’t mean that my lover took something from me. I betrayed myself… I mean that there was already something missing and I poured her into its place… It is true that every love is an angel of the abyss. Every lover is a destroyer. I had to be destroyed to become something else. To become more myself. But this freedom? It is worth everything.”

I’ve heard it said that memoir asks not what happened, but rather, what the f*^%* happened, and throughout Abandon Me, Febos returns again and again, in lush prose, to this question. It isn’t the answer that’s most compelling (answers seldom are). Rather, it’s the invitation Abandon Me offers the reader: to board her own ship, to hold her breath, and to leap into a dark and lyrical sea.


Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010) and the recent essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017). Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including Tin House, Granta, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, and elsewhere. The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). She serves on the Board of Directors of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the PEN America Membership Committee, and co-curated the Manhattan reading and music series, Mixer, for nine years.

Invasive Species by Claire Caldwell

by Ariel Kusby

Invasive Species Claire Caldwell

Wolsak & Wynn

October 2014


Canadian poet Claire Caldwell’s debut poetry collection, Invasive Species, offers a unique perspective on climate change. Through juxtapositions between the natural world and human civilization, wildness and order, catastrophic climate change and everyday personal dramas, Caldwell questions our place on Planet Earth, and the roles we as humans are playing in our interactions with it. The poems acknowledge the absurdity and cruelty of how human beings treat our planet, but also recognize the weight of our individual experiences and emotions, the intimacies we usually focus on while ignoring our environment. Caldwell’s poems manage to explore substantial themes with an intimate gaze; the humor is simultaneously empathetic and darkly cynical. Take the title poem, which opens:

Once, we built towns on water park economies.
Slides reared up like dinosaurs, pale plastic beasts
engineered to outlast our kids.

And later:

We kept driving. Though moths
coated power lines like pipe cleaners,
we kissed freely. We were complicit.

Caldwell’s use of “we” suggests a collective responsibility. All humans forget the consequences of our actions on a global scale and choose instead to focus on family or love. While the speaker is understanding of these human desires, she highlights the individual’s personal accountability by admitting that she (like all of us) was “complicit” in some way.

Caldwell’s choice of animal imagery, such as “dinosaurs” and “moths [that] coated power lines like pipe cleaners,” suggest a kind of disturbed innocence, a perversion of childlike fun. A water park intended for child’s play morphs into a zoo of “pale plastic beasts,” an apt metaphor for the way we’ve changed our planet, not realizing it. The plastic that makes up the waterslides might be derived from the residue of the dinosaurs, petroleum. While the dinosaurs aren’t literally alive to harm us, Caldwell awakens them again as a means for the planet to take revenge on us.

That is, after all, what nature does in Invasive Species. While nuances in the human-earth relationship are delicately explored, it is eventually clear that the planet is stronger than human ego. In the masterfully biting section about Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard’s fatal pursuit of the grizzly bear, Caldwell does not spare her opinion on humans whose hubris allows them to try to manipulate and conquer nature. For example, in the section Descent from the poem “Grizzly Woman,” the speaker examines the experiences of Treadwell’s girlfriend, Amie. The poem begins:

I arrive like a drug
plunged through a central line.
Amber, translucent. Flushed

into Kaflia a third season,
rust-flecked hills spread
like a girl’s legs.

The poem’s relationship to this event is complicated, and has much more compassion for Amie than for Tim. The words “plunged” and “flushed” imply a lack of choice, and yet she arrives in Kaflia with him, where she perhaps should not be.

The image of them entering the Alaskan wilderness like a girl’s spread legs has a violent connotation. The message here is clear: Timothy Treadwell’s grizzly bear obsession was an extreme example of the foolishness of imposing oneself onto the natural environment.

In a different section of “Grizzly Woman,” Obituary, Amie dares the reader:

Say we asked for it.

By employing a phrase highly associated with rape culture, the poem asks the reader who the actual victim was. Caldwell seems to suggest that while the bear may have killed Amie and Tim, it was in fact the victim.

By morphing the Alaskan hills into a human body, the poem also suggests that in order for us to feel like we truly understand nature and our relationship with it, we must humanize it. In an excerpt from “A Seamstress Considers The Fourth Dimension,” Caldwell continues along this vein:

I’d be a historian, chart progress
by the size of the moth holes.
I’d inspect settlements split
along fray lines, seaside towns
drowned in blue damask, reefy tapestries.

Here the speaker projects her idea of human progress upon the small marks made by a moth in fabric. She imposes a textile upon the sea, and tapestry upon ocean reefs.  Is this imposition a futile and silly pursuit? The poem suggests that it just might hinder true understanding of the natural world. It is, however, a way for humans to control nature. Take “Just Give Me One More Thing”:

Above the alley, we’d strung our laundry up
like prayer flags. I watched as the wind
nudged your jean shorts and my orange
halter. You fussed with a can of tuna.

It had been a good month, sandal weather,
and no one asked about your missing toe.
We never burned our English muffins.
We traded spots at the counter,
the sink, rarely touching.

The poem begins with an impression of domestic orderliness. There is a peace and neatness to the way the laundry has been displayed, nature (the wind) has only enough power for a weak “nudge,” and the biggest problem is opening a container of dead fish. There is also a sterile quality to the way they avoid touching, which suggests a kind of fakeness or formality, a forced interaction. Despite these efforts at order, they eventually prove futile when matched against the wilder forces of nature:

Still, the flies gathered. Bluebottles
slurring circles around the trash can.
I set vinegar traps and dreamt of buzzing.
You remembered your father, the smell
of him, how you couldn’t eat for weeks.

“It’s something we all have to face eventually,”
you said, as I bent to tie up the garbage.
Maggots sprayed across the kitchen like champagne.

The second half of the poem reveals the inevitability of nature triumphing, even if the overpowering forces are small insects. Death is just as much a part of nature as maggots are, which figure as his messengers. They remind the speakers of their mortality and powerlessness. While the message is bleak, there is a strange and grotesque beauty. During her attempt to be orderly, maggots spray “like champagne.” Thus, a celebration of death occurs, albeit a dark one.

Caldwell’s poems are skillful in their ability to investigate large topics like climate change in a relatable and interesting way. The poems are often full of dissonance and strange juxtapositions that reflect our relationships with the planet and each other. If you want to read poems that can gracefully bring together a medical student, a decomposing blue whale, an adult skull, and a Portuguese butcher (as in the collection’s final poem “Osteogenesis”), then you should read Invasive Species. Its wit and strangeness just might forever change the way you see whales, bears, and climate change.


Claire Caldwell is a poet and editor living in Toronto. She was the 2013 winner of the Malahat Review‘s Long Poem Prize, and her work has appeared in many magazines and journals, including Maisonneuve and Prism International. Claire holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph.

5 Reasons to Recommend With Animal

by Amelia Marchetti

With Animal by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee

Black Lawrence Press

May 2015

The Premise

With Animal explores the extreme natures of parenthood. Parents are cruel because they are selfish, because they can’t understand; parents are kind because their child needs them, because they find ways to connect. This is a collection of stories about people who can get pregnant with animals — a premise that inspires curiosity — but the focus isn’t on the animals, it’s on the relationship between parent and child. Animal children require unusual care, like jellyfish babies needing the ocean shore, or an egg hatching into a flying cat and stealing energy from a parent. But sometimes these circumstances are impossible to handle. By using fantasy, these stories can explore how complicated and strange parenting can be.

The Range of Stories

There isn’t one way to be a parent or a child and With Animal doesn’t deliver only one. In “With Sheep,” a father tries to sell his lamb and the mother steals her away to hide together in a flock of real sheep. A father in “With Joey” knows his wife does not want to be pregnant so he carries their child. “With Fish” has a mother giving up her body so her children can live, to the horror of her girlfriend. With Animal isn’t trying to answer any questions about raising a child, but I can look at its stories and find connections with my own childhood and parents — I saw my raging sister in “With Dragon” and myself leaving home in “With Fox.”

The Story “With Dragon”

“With Dragon” is the opening story and, immediately, the book is starting with a mythical creature. Pregnant with a dragon, a mother goes to forums looking for advice, eats fire, fears her child, and fears for “With Dragon” works because of the tight, short scenes, the voice that is both loving and in denial, and the voyeuristic horror of watching someone you love commit patricide and burn the town down. And she still loves her child, still fears him leaving her. I feel for that woman. I read this story over and over to feel her love, her heartbreak. She gave birth to something terrible and she loves it as only a mother can; it hurts me to read her loneliness upon seeing her dragon child fly.

“I saw her start to leave me in the most human of ways.” —      “With Fox.”

I love this line because all the stories in this collection revolve around the complicated relationship between parent and child — how they stay together, how they push each other away, and, most importantly, how they leave. One son leaves for a family that will love him unconditionally, two sisters leave because they think it’s best for their mother, and one daughter leaves because she would be happier on her own. So much of this leaving is described as part of their nature, but this final line of “With Fox” is the first time that leaving isn’t just an animal trait. This line reminds us, not unkindly, that it is also a human one.

The Complexity of Animal vs. Human

Literature and movies like to pit humanity against nature — humanity doesn’t win that comparison. Pets are better than people. Nature is a pure, wild ideal that humanity ruins (Fern Gully) and animals are guardians and examples of that pure, wild ideal (The Chronicles of Narnia). With Animal takes this dynamic and plays.

“With Human” has a narrator who loved her perfect animal children, but her human child, in contrast, was harder to come to terms with — he was wild. No soft panda baby sleeping snugly to her breast, but something that would bite and hurt her. “With Unicorn” follows a child growing to resent how his mother treated him like a trophy. Animal children have human reactions along with their animal urges; humans have animal desires that turn them wild, as well as a selfish, desperate, loving human foundation.

There is no “animals are right, humans are monsters” philosophy in With Animal. There are cruel animals and there are humans that try to cherish their beautiful spider daughters. People and beasts are both capable of selfish indifference and deep empathy. With Animal reminds us of that while delving into the complicated relationship of parent and child.


Carol Guess is the author of fourteen books of poetry and prose, including Tinderbox Lawn, Darling Endangered, and Doll Studies: Forensics. In 2014 she was awarded the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement. A frequent collaborator, her co-authored collections include How to Feel Confident with Your Special Talents (with Daniela Olszewska) and X Marks the Dress (with Kristina Marie Darling). She teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University, and blogs here: www.carolguess.blogspot.com

Kelly Magee is the author of Body Language, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, as well as the collaborative poetry collections The Reckless Remainder and History of My Locked Wrist. She teaches in the undergraduate and MFA programs at Western Washington University.

 

I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well by James Allen Hall

by Daniel Cretaro

I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well – James Allen Hall

Cleveland State University Poetry Center

April 1, 2017

 

I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well by James Allen Hall is a collection of moving personal essays on subjects ranging from his brother’s addiction to Hall’s first experience at a gay club, and is shot through with love, tenderness, beauty, and humor. The prose is rich, but also enlivened by dry humor and a lack of self-pity—a mastery of tone that defies easy description. Single, straightforward phrases often hold as much weight as more heartbreaking, lyrical passages. Because Hall withholds judgment—he loves these people, after all—the essays transcend simple sentimentality. Indeed, some of Hall’s subject matter is so heartbreaking that he should be commended for his bravery: a mother’s attempts at suicide, the death of a grandmother, an addicted brother.

In, “In Lieu of Drugs,” an essay about addiction, Hall places a poem in the middle of the action:

   //     I read   /    my student’s essays again   /   and again, thankful / for the white spaces    /    margins

This lyrical interlude brings the reader closer to the emotional core of the essay and heightens the tension. The reader is eager to know more; the white spaces invoke the anxiety that Hall writes about.

The first three essays in the collection, “My Frist Time,” “The Ends of Terror,” and “Prophecy” contend with the narrator’s experiences coming to terms with his homosexuality.

The first essay, “My First Time,” begins:

He wasn’t painfully ugly. Sure, he had the normal pockets of acne, but they didn’t usurp his heart-shaped face. Rather, they flushed along his cheeks and hid near his earlobes, like little angry villages unable to mount an insurrection.

This sounds like the opening to a story about an unlikely first love, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, the essay is about the cruelty of children, an interesting shift. The essay at first suggests that the “boy” will turn out to be “Jamie,” the narrator’s teenage crush. The narrator never names this “boy,” but instead the “boy” names the narrator a name that: “I had called myself that name for as many days as I had known Jamie […] I had watched myself say it, falling to the cold tile of the bathroom floor, hugging my knees to my chest, waiting for something to happen,” which zeroes in on the narrator’s identity conflict.

“The Ends of Terror,” in part, describes the narrator’s first experience in a gay club. “This is the gay Shangri-La I’ve been pining for? The reality doesn’t match the brochure,” Hall writes. The feeling of being out of place, a place where the narrator will be surrounded by people that are just like him, reinforces the identity issues that Hall writes about in the previous essay and that he will write about in the next.

With “Prophecy,” Hall uses hair as a lens to continue his meditations about identity. It opens with the narrator burning his hair on a dare. It is set in a college dorm room with three other men. There is another mention of a “Jamie,” but it is unclear if it is the same one that was in “My First Time.” “[Jamie is] the one who has kidded me into doing this, into making my hair an effigy. ‘Dude,’ he said, grinning at me the way boys do when they want to dare you, ‘your hair is so gay.’” Throughout the rest of the essay, the use of hair is a reflection of homosexuality. Whether it’s when the grandmother takes the narrator and his brother for their first haircuts because a friend of hers thought they were girls; or at the end, when in a motel room another man shaves the narrator’s hair off, suggesting that the narrator has taken control of his hair, and will no longer let people dare him or force him to cut it—a final gesture of self-acceptance.

A similarly stunning moment occurs in “Suicide Memorabilia”, during which the narrator describes watching his mother hold a gun to her chest: “The gun makes an outline like a crooked, accusatory finger in the sweatshirt.” This is a beautiful and brave moment in the book. The language is lyrical, but also loving and devoid of judgment.  Hall was able to write about such a dark moment without being cynical.

I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well is one of those books that doesn’t come around often. It is the rare book that possesses three key qualities: language, love, and candor. This is one of those books. This is what happens when you care about the people you are writing about, know your way onto a page, and have a story that must get out.


James Allen Hall is also the author of a book of poems, Now You’re the Enemy, which won awards from the Texas Institute of Letter, the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He teaches at Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.