Book Reviews: June 2013
Everyone Has A Mouth, Poems by Ernst Herbeck
Narcotic Nation, Fiction by Scarlett Savage
Flood Bloom, Poems by Caroline Cabrera
Tables, Poems by Alfred Corn
California Prose Directory 2013: New Writing From The Golden State, Edited by Charles McLeod
Senegal Taxi, Poems by Juan Felipe Herrera
The life of Ernst Herbeck is familiar. A bottom-wrung German laborer committed to a psychiatric hospital in the 1940s who spent his entire captivity writing reams and reams of poems that captured the hearts of his countrymen, his biography is the melodramatic 21st century poet’s idea of what an honest, artistic life should and can look like if only someone published their poems on the matter. A life of innocent strife, of submission to established systems (labor, war, conscripted service, hospitalization) and to struggle, Herbeck’s success comes through his written words, which carry infinitely more weight than their size can handle.
Herbeck was introduced to poetry through the encouragement of his psychiatrist Dr. Leo Navratil, who believed that a patient had the capacity for artistically relevant work in the acute stage of their mental illness. In Herbeck’s case, the illness was schizophrenia; the work was poetry. And in Everyone Has A Mouth, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, the two are blended with such a humble, beautiful simplicity that it is difficult to tell the difference.
Herbeck’s schizophrenia first manifested in his early twenties when he was working in a Nazi munitions factory. He began to think he was possessed by animals and by other people. These symptoms were sporadic, and, like most schizophrenics, Herbeck spent the early years of his illness believing he was mostly healthy. However, the possessions became more frequent and more real until Herbeck was committed to the national mental hospital in Niederösterreich (in Lower Austria).
Appropriately, Everyone Has A Mouth takes as long to read as a single therapy session: about an hour. This chapbook of 30 poems is translated from German by Gary Sullivan, with contributions from Oya Ataman and Ekkehard Knörer. The collection is ordered chronologically by the poem’s date of creation, starting with the first poem Herbeck ever penned, “Morning”:
In fall the wind-of-fairies
as in the snow the
Blackbirds whistle afield
in the wind and eat.
This little perfect poem’s smallness, written by a ward of the state but located outside among the fairies in nature’s vastness, resembles haiku. It is also dangerously logical.
This chapbook is crafted to intentionally disorient the reader: to possess them by degrees. The poems are arranged like voices in the consciousness of the schizophrenic. The familiar juxtaposition of animals, seasons, and the imaginative in “Morning” is followed soon after by “Blue”:
The Red Color.
The Yellow Color.
The Dark Green.
The Sky ELLENO
The Pedestal, The Ship.
The Leaf Vein
The Kleyf (R) “r.”
The Locks + The Lock.
This is what the merely “sane” is incapable of accessing without a guide. This is the heart of mania, the hysterical THE, the real supplanted and usurped by THE “REAL.” This is a poetry that eludes rhetoric and the loud color of sky and sea. And, reading it for the first time, the reader is as stricken as the patient. “Blue” is both an act of language and of mental illness.
For Herbeck, “Blue” is the real: “The Sea, The water” and is beyond reality: “The Sky ELLENO, The Kleyf (R) “r.” These linguistic creations are the conflation of man, of animal, of color seen and color felt at the vibrating heart of the present. Is it confusing? Yes. Is it complicated? Yes. Is it blue? Yes!
This ecstatic illogic is what makes this chapbook so vital. Herbeck’s poetry is a morse code, a tapping on the wall, a language system for the possessed that, to anyone without possession, is clearly hiding something.
The final poem, “A Hint of Sadness,” best reveals Herbeck’s relationship to both himself, to art, and to social constraints of sanity, freedom, and identity:
Caused those birds (blackbirds) before the
Not so wickedly cold winter snow —
A hint of sadness. Hunger,
Hunger, hunger. — — — —
Dr. Navratil coined a phrase for the work created by his patients – Zustandsgebundene Kunst: state-bound art. To Navratil, the relationship between the creator and creation was dependent on outside intervention. The phrase is comically serious when viewed against Herbeck’s language, which is neither bound to German, to syntax, or to any known language at all.
Reviewed by Edmund Zagorin
Readers may be surprised to discover that Narcotic Nation, prolific playwright Scarlett Savage’s third novel, is not really a drug book in any literary sense. There is never very much uncertainty about events as they happen, nor does Savage use paranoia or hallucinatory effects to warp the characters’ perception of events. There is very little narrative introspection, druggy or otherwise. The vast majority of Savage’s storytelling occurs through scenes of straight dialogue between Narcotic Nation’s rock band cast as they negotiate the challenges of fame and intimacy.
Perplexed? The title actually refers to Narcotic Nation’s guiding speculative theme. Savage sets the novel in an unspecified future where a Senator Charles Freedman has successfully pushed legislation legalizing all drugs (including cocaine and heroin) for over-the-counter purchase. Drug sales are regulated and taxed in order to fund a variety of social programs.
The arc of the novel follows the members of fictive anti-drug rock group Deus Ex Machina from obscurity to stardom, set against the backdrop of a populist anti-drug movement backlash against the Freedman Act. That’s right, a populist anti-drug movement. Aside from post-Minor Threat straight-edgers, anti-drug rhetoric has mostly been the wheelhouse of bourgeois authority figures rather than the audience of an edgy rock band, making the novel’s premise difficult to fathom. To contemporary sensibilities, the notion verges on oxymoronic.
Unfortunately, in Narcotic Nation’s case, readers may begin to sense conservative morality illogically tying the legalization of hard drugs to Roe v. Wade’s legalization of abortion. Savage permits startlingly polemical digressions that distract from the tenuous plotline by repeatedly justifying a pro-criminalization political agenda through reference to saving “addicts” from their own despicable desires: “So you actually had to ignore the dead, the hurting, and the scam artists. Most of all, those living high off the fat created by feasting on our people’s more base desires. They were exploiting people, and convincing those same people it was a good idea.” These assertions remain unsupported, except if readers take the narrator’s word that this is just how things would play out given the novel’s speculative premise. Freedman’s legislation is criticized, bizarrely, under much of the same logic that conservatives criticize taxes and regulations: for unfreedom and for “prey[ing] on the carcass of the addicts.”
Though the novel rails against non-stigmatizing approaches to addiction, discussions of the skyrocketing incarceration rates or racial disparities in prosecution that attend current policies of narcotic criminalization in contemporary America’s War on Drugs are conspicuously absent. The substance of choice for the Deus Ex Machina band members is overwhelmingly alcohol, though drinking manages to avoid Savage’s scathing condemnation as the musicians raid mini-bar after mini-bar.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Narcotic Nation lies in a clear ignorance of contemporary drug culture. The characters’ many dialogue exchanges about drugs betray a naïve attitude that seems out of sync with an America where widespread drug use is now legally permitted. Indeed, the dominant attitude towards drug use in Narcotic Nation is one of shame, since now the populist counter-weight has now mysteriously swung toward abstinence.
Like most conservative anti-drug literature, Narcotic Nation offers a poorly executed rehash of careworn cautionary tales. Savage’s writing betrays a reliance on the absent human voice by frequently using italics, capitalization, and multiple exclamation points for emphasis rather than allowing the reader to apply cadences naturally. Laced with pop culture references, from TMZ to Red Bull to Robert Downey Jr., Narcotic Nation doesn’t manage the suspension of disbelief necessary to achieve the speculative projection of another not-too-distant world. Unlike other drug dystopias, such as Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, there are no tales of addiction or incarceration, of ruined lives or Kafkaesque surveillance apparatchiks scheming in secret rooms. The central conflict of the novel is a disagreement over drug politics between the members of Deus Ex Machina who oppose the Freedman Act and, like the War on Drugs, ultimately resort to gratuitous violence in the name of a greater good. Though they believe in the cause, they are still rock stars with infinite opportunities to get high, opportunities they are not always pure enough to pass up.
Readers will be able to see why Savage has won accolades as a playwright through good moments of dialogue. Lines like “The way she followed him around, like a beaten puppy waiting for its daily dose of humiliation” establish a human dynamic between the characters’ often viciously perverse relationships. Overall, however, the story is interesting only as a campy curiosity.
Caroline Cabrera makes sweet language sharp. Her speakers are active and demanding yet playful. Readers aren’t just told what something is or isn’t. Instead, we are taken by the hand and dragged through rooms and landscapes as her speakers continue on. From the moment Flood Bloom begins, we must drop everything, listen up, and come along.
This is not about being rescued.
So forget those scarves
you’re running up the chimney.
Texas two-step back across the sitting room.
In “Powder Keg,” that’s how we’re getting there. But where are we going? These poems are pregnant with Cabrera’s three-dimensional imagination, which is eloquently illustrated in her series of “DIORAMA” poems. Like the beginning of “DIORAMA: FULL MOON POEM,” these speakers navigate the space between sleep and waking, childhood and adulthood:
I am me
but I have a sea monster belly
with an underwater village inside.
It’s a tank anyone can look into.
Cabrera’s childlike playfulness is often tempered with sobering moments that shine a flashlight to the book’s cardboard shoebox sky.
When I sing,
the most handsome seahorse
swims to the edge of me
and looks out at me.
I am almost certain
he is the same one
Here the speaker is luminous with language, singing to all the creatures inhabiting this world. Are we, the readers, this handsome seahorse? At times, it feels that way, not only because of the rich, romping environment the poet creates, but also because her poems consistently offer a gracious invitation to make discoveries with her. In “(I HAVE FOUND IT),” when she writes, “I have been building this spectacular bridge,” we sense that this bridge is for us. We’re all children again, “creating new secret handshakes on all of the landings” and walking across together to the next pit stop on this brilliant adventure.
Perhaps as well known for his prosody manual (The Poem’s Heartbeat, 1997) as for his numerous collections in poetry and prose, Alfred Corn’s latest book of poems, Tables, is an ambitious lyrical mosaic that is as meticulously craft-driven as it is rich in narrative and biography.
Corn is at his best in the long, several-sectioned poems that appear throughout Tables. The first of these poems, “Resources,” stands in as a statement of method for much of what follows. In the poem, Corn turns, ouroboros-like, through a series of contiguous circumstances and memories, re-turning to the first words of the poem by repeating them in the end. Constantly searching for a “first cause,” Corn finds sources and inheritances in everything from a half-forgotten fairytale to a sense of the mind developed from reptilian ancestors. Strange to hear second-hand, but under Corn’s persuasion, these connections seem almost inevitable. When he remembers a grandmother’s coercion to “Consider the source,” we are sure of her vitriol and left questioning whom this devious or insidious source might be. When the phrase appears again – consider the Source – it is in reference to Blake’s Lamb, (“who made thee?”). Rather, we begin to consider our own creation and our own inheritances.
These questions take on heavy significance in “Window on the World,” a post-9/11 poem that succeeds by measuring only the personal cost of a national tragedy. Corn looks back to the early 1970s, when the World Trade Center’s then final buildings were taking shape in the skyline. Now, so used to reading the absence of the Towers as a moment of chaos and destruction, Corn allows us to re-imagine and remember the absence as a moment before form, a time of ascendancy and possibility. For the poet, this is inextricably linked to his own hopes – “Those years I spent cooling my heels outside fame’s shortlist” – cementing our understanding of tragedy as something that happens through a multitude of stories, each one individual and yet still impossible to set aside in favor of over-expressed nationalisms and pedantic ideologies.
As to be expected, what Corn accomplishes in the poems’ larger narratives, he accomplishes equally with individual lines. The opening poem, “Horizontal,” is a study in compression, linking human beauty and aesthetic design, human history and the natural world, human story and liminal memory. It begins: “Gray light stone light light of the middle ages / merged with the western rain / it softens curtain panels to a blank / canvas I silhouette,” with each line dissolving and yet paradoxically building up, each word and its image dangling precariously on the edge of the next.
Tables is a longer collection by some contemporary standards, reaching nearly eighty pages, and to be sure not every poem is as dense or as well-crafted as those highlighted here. But that might be one of the hidden achievements of the collection. With so much heavy material, both prosodically and emotionally speaking, the somewhat lighter verse of a poem like “Dinner Theater” (which imagines the drama of gustatory pleasures) or the still heavy but much less compact prose piece “Oklahoma” (which feels a bit like Lowell’s prose in Life Studies) allows Corn to continue digging through the adumbrations of personal and historical circumstance without falling into poetic cliché or narrative platitudes. Instead, each page seems to hold fresh perceptions; each line continues to captivate with rhythmic and sensual variation.
Anthologies, if carefully curated, can be a diverse collection of voices. California Prose Directory 2013: New Writing From The Golden State, edited by Charles McLeod, represents a vivid tapestry of prose writing. With both short fiction and nonfiction written in styles from traditional to experimental, this anthology weaves together the larger story of California as place and as a state of being. From the nearly celestial blinking lights of oil wells in the Santa Barbara channel in Cameron Walker’s “Points Of Light,” the opening selection, to the “sun-bleached, hardtack landscape” of “The Girls In My Town,” by Angela Morales, these pieces speak to the diversity of both California and its writers.
Avoiding neat categorization, writers included in this anthology range from literary standouts, like Stephen Elliott, founder of the online literary magazine The Rumpus and author of seven books, to Josephine Fitzpatrick, an emerging writer who was a legal professional taking writing courses offered in extension courses. Yet, in the writing itself, one does not feel the difference between the seasoned pros and emerging writers. The collection grows from unique subjects—Elliot’s description of a young man trying to survive the severe conditions of the California penal system as punishment for a relatively minor offense, and Fitzpatrick’s trek through the perils of being a divorce lawyer. Jasmin Darznik’s “California Dreams, Iranian Décor” recounts, through rugs and velvet sofas, the idea of keeping one’s identity even as an émigré. “It was here that my mother finally unfurled her best carpet, a pistachio-green Tabriz beauty that has taken up almost all the space in one of our two suitcases.” Anthony Mohr, in contrast to Darznik, writes “26.9,” presenting the glory of 1960s surf culture as well as its ultimate disappointments. “Burgers and fries were cheap, parking cost a dollar, adults were scarce, and the waves were free. In no other place did I feel as good as on that sandy ribbon.”
This directory presents more than just a listing of important California writers, but rather invites us to the many California’s that exist in these pages.
Often we have found that our college students are drawn to poets like Wilfred Owen, Langston Hughes, Marge Piercy, and Carolyn Forché for the power of their politics. While some might associate poetry with the excavation and delineation of the personal, there is nothing like real-world events to set fire to a class discussion. And what could be more significant in recent years than the extremes of human suffering that occurred during the worst horrors of Darfur in Sudan? This is the troubling and vexing political terrain that Juan Felipe Herrera, author of numerous books and California’s current Poet Laureate, traverses in Senegal Taxi, portraying the atrocities of war through a series of fragmented and naïve voices, including those of three orphaned children, a fly, a Kalashnikov, a mad ex-Janjaweed, and others. The suffering is presented not from a distant perspective, but rather is distilled down to the raw, the narrow, the incomplete, the distorted, and the personal. The moving poems in this collection, in other words, find a way to be both political and personal.
Senegal Taxi takes its title from the aspiration of Ibrahim, the oldest of the village “ghost children,” to escape to Senegal and, from there, in a “taxi from Senegal to New York,” as he plans in “Mud Drawing #32.” The book mixes prose and verse, interspersed with bursts of a “television interview” and even Herrera’s striking visual art, which echoes the “mud drawings” in which Ibrahim “drew many things that happened to him and his village.” This is not a collection to be dipped into but a cumulative narrative in the tradition of As I Lay Dying, with its multiple speakers, a narrative in which the reader can’t be sure which events and dialogues are actual and which are imagined. The suffering, however, emerges as painfully real.
In brief explosions of perception or narrative, the characters convey their pain and confusion. In “Mud Drawing #24,” for example, Abdullah, the village boy with one eye, says “All darkness in my eye even though the sun perches on a limb next to me webs of lights and the stars that I speak to drooling my arms ahead of me. . . . I do not know if I am living or dead or nothing or something or maybe a giraffe dreaming of walking dreaming of a giraffe that sings hungry and thirsty for a name a name like Abdullah.” Herrera inspires compassion even for the Kalashnakov, which asserts in “Mud Drawing # 27,” “I am scarred and bloody / I suffer from tempests / From implacable winds between my temples.”
The potentially unreliable perspectives of these fragments might suggest that Herrera’s collection presents a chaotic journey into despair, with no possibility of putting the shards back together. But a coherent narrative of sorts does emerge, a journey—which might be a dream or might be a reality—a taxi ride that arrives at a place of dignity in the face of suffering.
Raul Alvarez earned an MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and is a book reviewer for Newcity. His poetry can be found in Elimae, Court Green, and PANK. He maintains a blog at raulrafaelalvarez.com.
Edmund Zagorin is a writer and argument teacher in Detroit, USA and Iowa City, USA. His novelesque Sorry, Our Unicorn Has Rabies is serialized electronically through Jukepop and he curates the monthly print broadsheet Stories By Mail. Read his data-fossils @multiplicit.
Tara Boswell is a New Jersey native who lives and writes in Chicago. She is an Assistant Poetry Editor for Phantom Limb Press, and the online literary journal Ghost Proposal.
Thom Dawkins is a PhD fellow at Case Western Reserve University, a frequent contributor to the LA Review, and a former Reviews Editor for Weave Magazine. His chapbook, After Alluvium, was released by Three Sheets Press in 2012.
Renée K. Nicholson lives in Morgantown, WV, splitting her artistic pursuits between writing and dance. A former professional dancer, Renée earned teaching certification from American Ballet Theatre and an MFA in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Chelsea, Mid-American Review, Perigee: A Journal of the Arts, Paste, Moon City Review, Fiction Writers Review, Redux, Cleaver Magazine, Poets & Writers, Dossier, Linden Avenue, Blue Lyra Review, Switchback, The Superstition Review, The Gettysburg Review and elsewhere. She serves as Assistant to the Director of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, and was the 2011 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona. She is a member of the book review staff at Los Angeles Review, as well as a member of The National Books Critics Circle and of the Dance Critics Association. Renée co-hosts the literary podcast SummerBooks and co-founded Souvenir: A Journal. Her website is www.reneenicholson.com
Beth Sutton-Ramspeck teaches nineteenth-century British Literature at The Ohio State University at Lima. She is the author of Raising the Dust: The Literary Housekeeping of Mary Ward, Sarah Grand, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the editor of Marcella, by Mary Ward, and Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Doug Ramspeck is the author of four poetry collections. His most recent book, Mechanical Fireflies (2011), received the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in journals that include Slate, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and AGNI. He is the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award. He teaches creative writing and directs the Writing Center at The Ohio State University at Lima.