Book Reviews: February 2013
Things That Are, Essays by Amy Leach
The System, Poetry by Claudia Serea
Carnavoria, Poetry by Laurie Saurborn Young
Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, Nonfiction: Laura Stanfill, Editor
Psychology and Other Stories, Stories by C.P. Boyko
Like nursery rhymes, fairy tales, or ballads, the essays in Amy Leach’s first book beg you to re-read them, memorize them, recite their lines. The author spins this planet into a fantasy world, complete with blood, sweat, space dust, and general entropy, not to mention fantastic creatures.
The book’s title hints at the enigmas within. Is a word missing? Things that are … what? Mysterious, wondrous, fabulous? Or, things that are. They exist, with Leach offering proof of their existence in sentences woven of whimsy. In a voice equal parts Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Emily Dickinson, and Charles Darwin, Leach speaks of the tenacity of pea tendrils, the industry of beavers, the patience of lotus seeds.
“Peas are clocky children who become spoony adults. Once they grow long-limbed, they start to teeter, because they possess more self than they can support. Then they grow madly wending tendrils, to sweep the air for lattices– just as teetery marionettes will grow marionette cords to sweep the air for marionetteers.”
“Unlike the gaps between clarinetists, a galaxy’s gaps are sometimes flammable,” she writes in “Love,” first published in The Los Angeles Review’s Fall 2010 issue, Volume 8. “Love” opens with the indiscriminate viola, aka love-in-idleness, and its likely return and survival should the Andromeda Galaxy collide with the Milky Way and clean the Earth’s biospherical clock. The reticence of love-in-a-mist blossoms concern us next, followed by love-lies-bleeding’s tendency to follow orders, and its refusal to fade. The essay concludes with love-binds, overtaking all else: “Dear people, track your offwandering donkeys with care, lest you get blitzed by rushing love in the green-mad forest and become another of its shapes; for love-bind overtakes all but the rapidest donkey trackers. Moss and mushroom communities are defenseless against love-bind, being stay-put.”
Some essays open as fairy tales, such as “Radical Bears in the Forest Delicious,” which begins, “There once was a king of Babylon who was too proud, so he was given the mind of an animal … ,” and wends its way into the single-mindedness of the panda bear. “Trooping with Trouble” begins with a mythical creature: “‘To whom then, does the Earth belong?’ said the dragon as he was being slain.”
The collection is broken into two sections: I. Things of Earth and II. Things of Heaven, thus separating the lyrical ballads of earth-bound critters from those of cosmological temper. Throughout both sections, we learn that nature is both effing hilarious and a raging drama queen, and that we all have our vulnerabilities. Without them, we would be boring, void of character. “What do the invulnerable have to gain from invention or experiment?” the author asks in an essay about lizards that is also a love note to lizards, exhorting them to fly their freak-flaggish crizzled necklace-frills, to jam their bloat-throated chuckwalla selves into a rock cleft for protection, or, if you are a cyan-tailed skink, sometimes you just want to blend: “Best to be drab or brilliant as needed.”
The protagonists of these fables may be uncommon heroes, but they have much in common, each with vulnerabilities as well as hero powers most of us could not imagine. Therein lies the purpose of this book. “Someone told me that animals are disappearing from our dreams,” says Leach in an interview on the Milkweed website. “It is sad, and impoverishing, that animals are underrepresented in our imagination, our art, and our lives. One of the things I was trying to do, in writing these essays, was furnish my own imagination with various creatures, various lives, various experiences of the world. This project brought me a lot of joy, and joy is what I’d hope to share with readers.”
For this reason—for this joy—these fable/essays don’t merely explain, explore, and meander. They creep, they fly, and sometimes they abandon the subject to focus on what was initially a minor character. That character then takes center stage, with Leach penning odes to that character, lyrics whose music strums just off-stage, an un-miced gig out behind the goat shed. And like any fables worth their just-right porridge, these fables impart morals. In a lush piece describing the proclivities and trajectories of whirligig beetles: “The secret to identifying any creature is to note its proficiency as well as its terrain: the same insect, clever on a biscuit, may be stupid in a puddle.” Puddle or no, Things That Are is a toothsome, clever biscuit indeed.
A sterile, muted cover introduces the reader to the world inside Claudia Serea’s chapbook, The System. Reflecting the prison we come to know more personally, the cover is modest and impersonal, with just a hint of barbed wire suggesting what it is to be imprisoned, what it is to be restrained. Inside, a military-like formation stands on guard for the table of contents: titles of poems with a repetitive “the” list off key players in one man’s prison. “The Informant.” “The Soldier. ” “The Interrogator. ” “The General. ” “The Judge.” Soon we swallow the suffocation of imprisonment, feel the helplessness as walls close in around an inmate’s unknown fate.
Serea’s collection stems from her father’s experience as a political prisoner in Romania. As each poem introduces a new cast member within this esoteric world, so does the reader hear the inner workings of moral codes, justifications, and reasoning based on experience, based on what allows a person to sleep at night. In the poem “The Soldier,” the speaker begins robotically with what we already suspect will flow from others’ mouths: “I follow orders.” So it is as the list of witnesses is introduced, with “The Third Witness” following suit: “I only did / what I was told.” Yet the poems in The System are not so sterile and impersonal; Serea takes us inside to see, hear, and feel as others do within a caged world.
As personalities ascend through the ranks, defense mechanisms elevate. “The Courtroom Clerk” hides behind the role of testimony-tracking, veiled by the anonymity of clerical work:
No one will know
those lives away,
only the hands
and stamped them.
“The General” defends his role, or lack thereof, in prison-related death. He argues that “people die all the time” in and outside of prison walls and that he is merely “a patriot” with a “moral duty.” Guards range from providing advice “to make it out / alive” to those who threaten any act of defiance.
As the poems progress and take the reader through the prison system, all of the speakers weave together in a buffet of advice and rules necessary for survival. The unspoken prisoner is not passive in his absence, but present and aware with each new stanza, every new persona. As “The Prison Clerk” returns the inmate’s personal belongings and says “You’re free to close the gate / on nightmares,” there is a sigh of relief, a bittersweet exhale in realizing our prisoner has made it through, but at a cost as “the new man” reenters the world to start again.
Serea sheds light on a dark world where life and death are a mere breath apart. While she draws on her father’s experiences, the poems in The System speak a larger truth, inviting the reader in to meet a complex cast of powerful characters. While the inmate draws compassion, each poem’s speaker is personified to represent their world three-dimensionally, where judgment rests within the reader.
In The Well Wrought Urn (1947), Cleanth Brooks writes that the “essential structure of a poem (as distinguished from the rational or logical structure of the ‘statement’ which we abstract from it) resembles that of architecture or painting: it is a pattern of resolved stresses.” The postmodernists, of course, focus their energies more stubbornly on disconnection, on stresses that cannot be resolved under any circumstances, on fissures in the whole that become more and more pronounced upon careful study until the entire edifice deconstructs before our eyes.
In Laurie Saurborn Young’s vivid first book of poetry, the author seems comfortably (uncomfortably?) ensconced with the latter camp. The speakers in these often stream-of-consciousness works seem trapped in strange and liminal states, in disconnections with lovers and with the self, in irreconcilable binaries or multiplicities of language and of being. In “Little Birds,” for example, the speaker announces, “I am a bad girl I am a bad boy I am adept / at differentiating between skin and cypress.” Part of the emotional appeal in the best of these works comes from the poignant longing the speakers clearly possess to find their way out of their disassociated states, to become New Critics of the spirit. In nearly every case, however, the effort is futile, the “stressed” cannot be resolved, and so the poems create a map to a destination that cannot be reached: “Now I am a blue / horse, now a solitary violin playing / along the hill.”
The poem “Life as an Uncast Spell” portrays a fragmented self as a type of failed magician:
For years I waited to turn into someone else,
Into a collection of looks from across the room.
What can I predict for our photons scrambling out?
In “Call Me,” the speaker, waiting for a return call from a lover, insists, “Hello, Baby, I’m David Byrne [of the Talking Heads],” and yet another poem is titled, “My other life is a Citroen.” Many of the poems allude to celebrities, writers, politicians, or other texts. In one such poem, “Goodnight Moon,” the speaker speculates, “Say I awake and our house is one million / grey rabbits.” The boundary between text and “reality” blurs and seems arbitrary as the speaker is “lost to [. . .] yellow / paint spilling from a lamp,” but repeatedly remarks, “So what?” Although this and other poems in the collection convey uneasiness about such arbitrary states of being, most share with this poem a playful enthusiasm as well.
Indeed, Laurie Saurborn Young’s collection is an engaging romp through the uncertainties of the postmodern landscape.
If one was not aware of the vibrant literary community that exists within the state of Oregon, then Brave on the Page would be the perfect introduction to the varied literary voices from the state’s working writers. Separated into three sections, the first and third consisting of interviews and the second made up of flash essays, this book offers interesting advice and inspiration from journalists, novelists, middle-grade authors, poets, nonfiction writers, writer-activists, short story writers, and all kind of writers in-between. What emerges is a tapestry of writers who happen to hail from the same geographic region, sharing wisdom, encouragement, and counsel beyond the boundaries of regional writing.
The range of topics packed into less than 200 pages begins with an interview with Lauren Kessler, whose work spans literary nonfiction and journalism, in which she helps to define genre. “Narrative nonfiction combines the force of fact with the drama of fiction,” Kessler says. “It meshes authenticity (this really happened, no fabrication) with resonance (this is a crafted, nuanced story of what happened).” Novelist Julia Stoops, in another interview, offers advice about cultivating a diverse group of readers. “It’s important not to rely solely on other writers to critique your work. Non-writers will be smart and perceptive about a novel in a whole different way.”
The flash essays continue with quick, potent insights. Fiction writer Sherri H. Hoffman ruminates on how “stuff” can be helpful to a story. “Objects often carry great weight on multiple levels, which serves to deepen character, authenticate setting, increase tension and become metaphor.” In a lyric flash, Gina Ochsner tackles combating cynicism towards her work. “If I allow cynicism to drum with the heavy hammers of ‘no good, no good’ against the tympanic membrane, I hear the winter wren in the dark hemlock behind our house. I can’t recognize the beauty of its song nor appreciate the fact that the smallest, plainest of birds compose the sweetest songs built of notes and shifting patterns and rhythms that seem to never repeat.”
This collection shows the breadth and depth of Oregon’s writing community, with reach and insights that are applicable beyond the state’s lines. The interviews and essays are sometimes sad, other times funny, often wise, and present the brave act of committing words to the page in a way that celebrates the process of writing.
C. P. Boyko takes as probing a look into the world of psychology as any doctor might into the confused mind of a patient, and comes away with a similar diagnosis: narcissism, delusions of grandeur, flights of fancy, logorrhea. The author’s disdain for the profession is clear in these not-so-short stories (thirty to fifty pages each), but that’s not to say it’s balanced by overwhelming sympathy for his characters. The patients and clients in Boyko’s tales of the mind are sometimes victims, but sometimes as manipulative and detached as the doctors they encounter, and at all times products of the rationalization of their circumstances, the human will being programmed for survival first; compassion is on the list, but it’s far down in these tales.
Much of psychology, Boyko alludes, is still guesswork, or worse, the application of standard answers to individual problems. A prep-school student entertains thoughts of latent homosexuality based on his doctor’s interpretations of his dreams and actions. A woman attending a self-help conference struggles with the concept of free will, as does the doctor-turned-guru who created his program as a satire of the industry, and then discovered people bought into it anyway. A former captain of industry faces his most feared path of demise when he is institutionalized with dementia.
The author bucks current trends in fiction like invisible narrators and single-character focus, preferring instead to soar omnisciently above the human fray, until such time as he deems it necessary to dive-bomb, raptor-like, into the backstory and motivations of a particular character. Occasionally he addresses the reader directly to make a point, a satirical take on the industry he excoriates in this book: don’t worry, I’ll tell you what to think. The style, reminiscent of an earlier time in fiction when authors sometimes played God, takes some getting used to in these days of sparseness and minimalism, but once the reader understands where Boyko is coming from, then, unlike the subject of psychology, it all makes sense. And the explorations drill so deeply into this mysterious medical science that they make the effort worth the reader’s adjustment.