Saturday, June 15, 2019

West Side Girl & Other Poems by Lauren Scharhag, reviewed by Rusty Barnes

Lauren Scharhag
West Side Girl & Other Poems
Self-published (available via Amazon)
2013
$11.99
reviewed by Rusty Barnes


West Side Girl & Other Poems by Lauren Scharhag assumes a lot of a reader. Plainly produced, the book has a cow on a pedestal on its cover, promising something earthy and plain, maybe, or--I hope not--an excess of irony, like Jim Harrison famously said, I'm a little tired of irony. But that's my problem. The poems' brief cover text says only that the poems were written from 2004-2013, exploring themes of womanhood, family and the poet's German-Mexican heritage. I could have been drawn in a little better, but I like a book already that says plainly what it is.

"Good Bread," on the first page, is a solid poem. "Good woman, good bread,/snug in waxed paper,/clean sheets on the bed." I anticipate the rhyme scheme that never comes, but never get frustrated at its lack, or the knack, of starting with something concrete in those three quick lines that turn into something else by the end. The poem's a celebration of good bread, and the women who have traditionally made it, who were also "the ones who looked at the moon/and baked bread round." This is the kind of poetry that tells us what is important right now in the poet's mind and doesn't equivocate or obfuscate unnaturally.

A little later on, in "The Medium" the speaker of the poem, presumably the poet, describes an artist grandfather "at his easel. . . in a shirt dappled with paint." I appreciate the sentiment of what's being described, but dappled is too easy a word, the image is too easy to carry the crux of the stanza, followed as it is by "hands nicked and chapped," words altogether too common to render their subject timeless. The words mostly not taut enough, running its long lines untrammelled by any attempt to slow down. I also note here a paucity of poetic language, which again speaks to the lack of tension, a single simile the only occasion in a page-long poem.

Overall, the poems are strong, narrative poems in the dominant mode. They surprise occasionally as in "Churrascaria"where "eyelids become peachflesh" or in "Chasing the Worm" where "Satan doesn't have to come to me. I'll go to him." In the best poem of the collection, "The Ages of Woman," the poet tracks a woman's life in stages: Fetus;Girl:Woman;Mother;Barren;Post;Ether. The poem succeeds on the impact of the "Girl" section."Cling to your poppets and doilies.//No matter how life-like,/Their painted stares cannot prepare you and "Harvest these cells if you dare" together with the "Mother" section, wherein the speaker imagines infanticide, and dreams a sequence of events both horrible and common. "And now I am prepared to end/all your possibilities,/all possibility of us." which lines grip and move a reader even knowing from the remainder of the poem what's coming, or not coming. This is a poem that rewards revisiting for the sheer power of the woman revealed.

Overall, the book is successful, but the terms of that success are determined largely by how willing you are to give yourself up to the forces of intuition and insight, and not necessarily the power of an individual line. I'm interested to see what Scharhag is writing now. 3.5 of 5 stars.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Zachary Fishel

Dante’s View Nov. 13th 2017 

A local geriatric club rented every tent site for their annual art show. It was the only weekend of the year Death Valley National Park would be fully booked. We showed up missing that last comfortable spot near toilet paper and portajohns. It was your first camping trip, and the first time you’d experience life below 65 degrees. It would be 32 inside our south facing tent. I explained we’d go “back country”, a hilarious phrase used by tame people, and sleep right on the mountain. You’d never been cold before and as the tent shivered into nightfall, you exhaled and saw your first breath leave you. You tested several more, silently, watching ice form against the canopy. Then laughed a little supernova out into the beyond.

Zachary Fishel teaches seventh grade in the world’s sunniest town. His work is widely published with two full credit titles to his name. When able he spends time hiking with his dog and eating ice cream with his wife. 



Friday, June 7, 2019

Renuka Raghavan


(Re)incarnation

Because a colossal arm of hubris
beheaded a body fleshed together with turmeric and clay,

nursed not at his mother’s bosom but with hands and breath,
splenetic Destroyer of Evil,

the pale of his blue skin, fire of his third eye
cowered to a mother’s sorrow.

Lugubrious chants precede

rumors of a dead elephant in the North,
his non-decaying carcass starfished across forgotten rubble.

Legend is (re)born

with his head now appended onto that jaundiced figure.
Several gods pose behind him for scale.

Renuka Raghavan’s previous work has appeared in, Boston Literary Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, Blink-Ink, Star 82 Review, Down in the Dirt Literary Magazine, Chicago Literati, and elsewhere.  She is the author of Out of the Blue, (Big Table Publishing, 2017) a collection of short fiction and poetry. Renuka serves as the fiction book reviewer at Červená Barva Press, a poetry reader for Indolent Press Books, and is a co-founder of the Poetry Sisters Collective. Renuka writes and lives in Newton, Massachusetts. Visit her at www.renukaraghavan(dot)com

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor, by Mike James, reviewed by Rusty Barnes

Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor
Mike James
80 pages
February 2019
$12.00
Reviewed by Rusty  Barnes

Mike James is a poet comfortable in several modes. I've read ghazals I liked and excellent free verse, and it wouldn't surprise me somewhere in his extensive catalog of thirteen books to find a formal mode too. He seems like a poet searching for things he hasn't done, and so we find his latest collection, Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor, from Blue Horse Press, tilting ahead into the prose poem, best of all, the often surreal prose poem of Tate and Simic and Edson. I have no ready store of terminology for this kind of poem, coming at it from the POV of someone who's enjoyed a surreal tone occasionally, though not in steady diet.

My introduction to the surreal was in the early work of Bill Knott, reading whom taught me many things, most important of which was that I was not a natural poet. The lyric is not my mode, the usual narratives sustain me, and the simile and other metaphor, those roots of poetry, do not come naturally to me. All of this is to come, finally, to Mike James the poet, who is indeed fluent in all of these things, and this book proves it.

The lyric is evident in poems like " Oh Daddy, Give Me a Quarter For the Time Machine." in a paean for the Weimar Republic, a nostalgic and sarcastic at the same turn in which the speaker invokes Marlene Dietrich,Walter Benjamin, Brecht and Weill, and of course, some unknown Sally Bowles "at a barstool listening to other people's dreams." A well-done piece.

Compare this with "The Mime," which comes a little later in the book, at the beginning of section III.

So he wanted a quiet place. He found a box with invisible walls. Crawled right in.

After a while, after silence became as empty as a shell and the sound of his breathing was the last thing he wanted to hear, he ran his palms along the walls, hoped and hoped for the exit that was there.

It  reminds me of Simic, though not as sly and perhaps more feeling, where a Simic poem can leave you cold. Other purveyors of the surreal come to mind, too, James Tate and Dean Young, though James charts his own course by staying grounded in the real then venturing beyond where with these others, the venturing itself seems the point. James's poems are the puncturing of the surrealist balloon in the end, while others are content to remain inflated, James always brings us back into the realm of the real.

The best poem in the  book is "The Films of Burt Reynolds" in which the speaker discusses Burt through the film ages and with his various paramours and wives only to close with the speaker's mother saying "she'd marry him if she just stopped by." Successful as  both nostalgia-trip and head-shaking laugh, it is exemplar of this strong collection: never hurried, always sure-footed, and well-worth the price of admission. Pick this one up.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Book Review: John Dorsey, The Afterlife of the Party

John Dorsey
The Afterlife of the Party: New & Selected Poems 2016-2018
Ragged Lion Press
United Kingdom
January 2019
£8.00
Reviewed by Rusty Barnes

John Dorsey's latest book is a collection of some of the chapbooks he published from 2016-2018 (Analog Submission Press, CWP Collective Press, Indigent Press, NightBallet Press, Red Flag Poetry, Spartan Press, Tangerine Press) plus new poems and an introduction by Mike James. One of the things you can take from this is that 2018 was a pretty fair year for Dorsey publication-wise. He's quite prolific and quite good, and this collection is a solid continuation of the roll he's been on since Appalachian Frankenstein, the book with which I really familiarized myself as regards the Dorsey small press phenomenon.

People are at the center of Dorsey's poems. They're not elegies, really, though some are elegiac, and they're not really portraits either. They are simple sketches of ordinary people in extraordinary moments when the world's focus holds for just a moment, then goes blurry again. Poems are dedicated to people, mostly other poets it seems, both well-known and not. One of my favorites, a short one I'll quote here in its entirety, sums up Dorsey's attitude toward his people, his primary subject matter.


Poem for Felino

I wonder who found your body
who tapped the last bit of jazz
out of your ears

trapped in there like a hornet
like a ghost born again

building castles out of bone.


You don't have to know Felino the subject--I don't, though I suspect it's Felino Soriano, who I might have met once when he read at Tim Gager's Dire Reader series in Cambridge MA over fifteen years ago--to recognize and cherish the moment in which Dorsey finds someone tapping the jazz from Felino's already unhearing ears or to appreciate the two tight similes that form the poem's core. It's enough to let the poem rise on those similes and energize itself, only to have the poem resolve into another arresting, if puzzling image. I'm not sure how you build castles from bone, nor am I entirely settled as to who's building them, the hornet, the ghost or the body-finder, as there's no punctuation to help me, but I'm willing to ride along on this short poem's momentum.

In "Poem for My Aunt on Her Birthday," the refrain "you were young once" is elegiac and oratorical at once. I imagine this poem might do well at readings, these repetitions interposed as they are between snapshots of the narrator's aunt's life "before diabetes & mental Illness/before time became just another broken heart."

In a poem not expressly about a person, again Dorsey makes use of subtle repetition, In "Another Reason Why I Love This Town" where variations on the phrase "you might" play off each other to great effect and the poem resolves wonderfully in a gout of dog urine: "her dog pissing out what looks like/a whole pitcher of flat budweiser." Anything can happen in a John Dorsey poem.

Another short poem I found myself returning to is dedicated to a specific person, in this case Christina.


Y2K: A Love Story

looking for a small red haired girl
in times square
i remember thinking
there are worse ways
for the world to end.


Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but looking for a girl. Anyone who's spent time looking for a significant other or anyone to cling to in this mad old bad world can relate. Also common in a John Dorsey poem, speakers and narrators who search for something in myriad places, due no doubt to Dorsey's often-punishing reading schedule, which once approached a hundred dates a year. All that travel makes its way into the poetry.

On facing pages late in the book, "Round Corner Tavern Poem (for mikey west"' and "The Ghost of Sacramento Past (for gene bloom)" illustrate well the kinds of poems you find in this book that are not about people but instead types or characters. "Round Corner. . ." begins "Every night they mop/ the blood of hipsters/off the floor" and ends "the sadness of last call/is still more useful/than your average poem." There's some existential ennui for you at the end of this collection, which continues in 'The Ghost of. . ." dedicated to Gene Bloom, where the speaker of the poem observes Gene ". . .up half the night/rolling joints in orderly piles/the way they did it in sing sing/the night we put a man/on the moon." This poem neatly orders the complex ghosts of the title into images everyone can feel, particularly in the locative "in sing sing" and the dative "the night we put a man on the moon." What was a poem about some old guy becomes specific and magical, and a nice place to end a review.

Dorsey's skill is two-toned. There's the surface shine of these poems, the insights and the back and forth of people in the rigors of their lives, which is the great and necessary accomplishment of the work. Then there's the craft beneath, the revealed glow, and I'm not sure sometimes which is the stronger element, or if I'm even meant to have to choose. Sometimes the poems risk being surfacey, but then the images stick with me: bones; ghosts popping out when you least expect them like in some video game; hipster blood on a sawdust floor; Gene calmly ordering a pile of joints on the table. I realize then that's the shine, that's what I'm meant to take from these poems. It all comes from the skill and hard work and the risk to lay it all out there. Which is to say, a John Dorsey poem looks easy, till you try one yourself.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

June Poem Reviews

I've had fiction and non-fiction reviews published in quite a few journals and have been a member of the National Book Critics Circle, when I could afford it. Therefore, I feel quasi-professional in those arenas. I don't necessarily feel that way about my poetry reviews. I have opinions, though, and in the interest of keeping my poetry-mind occupied during an otherwise stressful time in my life, I'd like to make you, the poetry world, an offer. If you mail me your chapbook or book--at least 24 pages but no more than 100 pages, self-published or traditional--I will post a review of between 150 and 300 words about it, as professionally as I can, in the following months. Promise. Mail me your book, get a review. Easy. If I get a huge response, I'll declare a cap and communicate it here. I would prefer to work from print copies. I hate reading poetry in PDF or MOBI--my preferred methods for prose--because the lines never break correctly and I find myself critiquing lineation that doesn't exist in the original.

Sound good? Email me for the mailing address, livenudepoems AT gmail DOT com. Ask questions in the comments. Offer good until postmark date 7/1 or I cry uncle.