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BOOK REVIEWS

  • Woodstock Baby, by Joan Dobbie, reviewed by Tim Volem

    July 23, 2014

    Woodstock Baby
    by Joan Dobbie

    The Unforgettables Press
    (dobbiejoan@yahoo.com)
    ISBN 978-1-4923138-3-0
    2013, $9.00

    Joan Dobbie’s Woodstock Baby is described on its cover as a Novel in Poetry, and while it is not technically a verse novel, with a formal structure (stanzas, rhyme scheme), it is composed of short free verse poems that tell a story.

    The story is set in Boston in the late 60s/early 70s and documents the lives of a network of friends who are immersed in the counterculture of that time. It is an insular community, focused on the art of living, more than on making a living, and its characters are artists and dropouts, students and cab drivers, Viet Nam vets and young parents, particularly young mothers. As Joan Dobbie says in her Introduction, addressed to friends, her work is fiction and “like most fiction, it is based upon life.” In the work, Joan is named Ruth who marries a young man named Ryan and they soon have a daughter named Jenny Fay. In an Afterword, Dobbie lists the cast of characters whom we’ve come to know from reading the short poems. The list describes the characters’ roots, which display a range of cultures and class. But what connects the characters is their youthfulness and the lure of Boston (most of them are from someplace else). There is a compelling sense that the immediate is open to great possibility.

    A central theme in Woodstock Baby is pregnancy and its attendant developments- childbirth and childrearing. The poem that is reprinted on the book’s back cover, with the following two-line title, captures the focus of much of the story:

    Don’t let anybody tell you different
    PREGNANCY IS CATCHING

    All summer I stayed with Mitch
    & Marlene
    who was pregnant.

    All summer I studied
    the Pink Pregnant book, rested
    my hand on her belly,
    breathed
    the salt spice of that baby.

    That was the summer before
    the summer my baby was born.

    Dobbie’s poems are mostly short and use white space liberally, making for ease of reading. Often there is a central image that captures a scrap of time and easily conveys character, like the poem “Onion Soup,” presented early in the story:

    ONION SOUP

    Joby will never be poor
    hates

    She will be a rich
    & charismatic writer

    & so

    cooks onion soup
    which she says is the soup
    of the wealthy

    & grand.

    We top it with croutons & sharp
    cheddar cheese.

    We hold our spoons
    with pinkies

    Sometimes a wry humor is presented in the snapshots of life in Boston, as in the following, one of the longer poems in the novel:

    BEWARE OF MARRYING A PAINTER

    If your new husband
    is an artist
    & you’re just beginning
    to show
    & you’re still
    very young
    & tight
    & pretty

    then you may
    end up spending a lot
    of long shivering hours

    standing absolutely stark naked

    (absolutely
    no moving)

    in the middle of the frigid
    landlord-green
    living room

    (which is your only room)

    probably by the mantel
    (& the fireplace boarded up)

    probably with your right arm
    raised
    like Miss Liberty

    & your left
    on your hip & your back

    arched seductively.

    In addition to Ryan and Ruth’s friends and housemates, there are appearances made by her parents and her brother and sister, too. An inclusiveness prevails in the apparent casual living being experienced by Ruth in Boston. The poem “Jenny Talking to Grandma” is one such appearance of immediate family:

    JENNY TALKING TO GRANDMA

    on the phone,
    she presses

    the heavy black
    receiver

    to her ear,
    swinging

    her right leg
    back & forth

    back & forth

    like little girls do
    & her eyes

    are the river
    at night.

    As the novel proceeds, there are challenges presented to many of the characters we’ve come to know, and Ruth of course is no exception. In small increments, we come to learn much about many of the inhabitants of the rundown house in Boston.

    What seems like a casual collection of impressions does develop into the fabric of a story and builds to an ending that leaves Ruth in control but on the verge of a future that is filled with unknowns. Woodstock Baby documents a version of the 60s zeitgeist in a seemingly casual manner but the effect of all the short poems is one that stays with the reader. And upon completion, this reader found himself visiting the story again and gathering a greater sense of the characters as they engage in concerns of their youthful lives.

    Copies of Woodstock Baby may be ordered directly from Joan Dobbie (dobbiejoan@yahoo.com). The book is also available online through Amazon.

    Reviewer Bio: Tim Volem is a member of the Lane Literary Guild in Eugene and has published poems in The English Journal, Tiger’s Eye, and Carapace.

  • The Parachute Jump Effect by Judith Arcana, reviewed by Penelope Scambly Schott

    June 26, 2014

     

    Review by Penelope Scambly Schott

    The Parachute Jump Effect
    by Judith Arcana

    Uttered Chaos Press (www.utteredchaos.org)
    ISBN 978-0-9823716-9-5
    2012, $10.00

    Unless you are of a certain age and grew up in Chicago, you won’t understand the title of this chapbook until you get to the final poem, a shared recollection of a long-gone ride in a vanished amusement park.

                                              Riverview’s gone.
    It’s been disappeared.  This is all about history –
    that’s where the parachute jump is now.

    The ride was about choosing to rise in order to fall – the poet felt the fall in her heart, the woman she is addressing felt the fall in her throat.  This was the thrill of anxiety.

    Throughout Judith Arcana’s chapbook, we hear the voice of a wryly urban poet playing with questions and anxiety.  The book opens with two scary dream poems leading to a poem which dissects uncertainty.

    Ok, All Right, Yes

    You think you know what’s going to happen
    but you don’t, you know only what you think
    is going to happen –

    After examples of expectations that may or may not come true, the poem concludes:

    you think you’ll live until you die
    and hey – ok, all right, yes
    you can have that one
    that one’s got to come true.

    Much of the pleasure of these poems lies in their tone, serious but often witty.  Even when Arcana becomes dark and philosophical, as in “Lois, Questions” where she addresses the dead friend to whom she has dedicated the book, she is also playing with ideas.  Here are some of her questions:

    What’s it like out where you are?

    Is there music? Is there eating? Sleeping?

    Can you fly?  Can you see me?  Are you coming back?

    Will you be someone else?  A wolverine, or a stalk of corn?

    Do you still have cancer when you’re dead?
    Or does it go away after it kills you?  Are you angry?

    In this collection Arcana is not angry but she is chronically perplexed – and never in an abstract way.  Whether she writes about safety matches or bakeries, she is exploring and reporting back on the mind at work.  You will want to follow her journey.

    Reviewer Bio: Penelope Scambly Schott’s verse biography A Is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth received an Oregon Book Award.  Recent books are Lovesong for Dufur and Lillie Was a Goddess, Lillie Was a Whore.  Forthcoming Fall 2014 is How I Became an Historian.  Penelope teaches an annual workshop in Dufur, Oregon.

  • Rending the Garment by Willa Schneberg, reviewed by Eleanor Berry

    May 22, 2014

    Review by Eleanor Berry

    Rending the Garment
    by Willa Schneberg

    Box Turtle Press
    ISBN 978-1-893654-14-3
    2014, 103 pp., $16

    RendingtheGarment-Cover

    The couple in the cover photograph compel our gaze. “Should I recognize them?” we may wonder, thinking they must be stars in a classic film of the 1940s. As we read, we discover that they made much the same impression on their contemporaries:

    At family affairs distant relatives
    asked if they were on the stage,
    and my parents flattered and tired
    would shake their heads, no,
    as they left the floor to look for their table.

    Superimposed on the cover photograph of the vivacious young woman and debonair young man, clearly entranced by each other as they clink their glasses in a toast, is the book’s title, Rending the Garment. That is what this book does. The poems in various voices and the documents in various hands that compose it are like so many scraps of clothes torn in mourning. Together, they tell a family story with an adequate complexity that no narrative from a single point of view could convey.

    The characters are Ben, Esther, and Willa—the New York Jewish parents and the poet, their only child. The book’s three-part structure—“Ben, Esther & Willa,” “Esther & Willa,” “Willa”—tells, in the starkest terms, how time has dealt with them.

    Reading this book, I learn to know Ben, Esther, and Willa in somewhat the way I learn to know people in the actual world. I piece together a sense of their characters and a story of their lives from fragmentary encounters. But the book differs from the world in that it reveals the episodes of their lives chronologically: much more than is typical for a collection of short poems, this one induces readers to read it in order. In the book, again unlike the world, the speakers change unpredictably, and it isn’t always immediately evident who is speaking in a given poem. I found that the shifts kept me alert and attentive.

    Before reading this book, I had already met Esther—in The Books of Esther, Willa’s 2012 exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum, which powerfully documented and memorialized her mother’s life, especially through her writings in a succession of notebooks when surgery for throat cancer had “cut out her voice,” and in a small, exquisite collection of associated poems from Paper Crane Press. I remembered how, without voice, she had made writing her way of speaking, her “words—wise, fierce, raucous / filling up the pages of the world.” I remembered her in an airplane restroom, literally deaf to the impatient knocks and shouts of fellow passengers, efficiently grinding her pills and pouring the powder, along with her liquid nutrition, into her jejunostomy port.

    Through Rending the Garment, I learn more of Esther before and during her marriage to Ben. I meet her as an 11-year-old winner of an essay contest on fire prevention, who knew that she couldn’t write about boys “lighting matches underneath swing sets.” I meet her as a young mother, half-heartedly playing mahjong with other young Jewish mothers, not revealing “that I have a B.A. and / don’t care about mastering this game.” I meet her as a striking teacher, cringing to hear “some fellow strikers / call scabs ‘nigger lovers.’” I meet her in the hospital while her husband is dying in another part of the same hospital, and at his funeral, where, she can’t hear her daughter who is speaking for her.

    Besides learning more of Esther, I meet Ben and am drawn into his struggles to be the person that he imagines himself, the person that Esther and Willa, for a time, believe him to be. Loveless conception, trauma of work in a civil service job patrolling in the Holland Tunnel, frustration and failure as a teacher, humiliation of working as a waiter, hospitalization for depression, struggle to overcome tunnel phobia, betrayal by age: all these circumstances and experiences of a difficult and particular life make the man with the matinee-idol looks in the cover photograph a fellow human for whom I feel both exasperation and empathy. They are conveyed mostly through persona poems in Ben’s voice.

    For me, the most heartbreaking of the poems in Ben’s voice is “Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Seaview Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library,” where he speaks of playing James Tyrone, Sr., “failed Shakespearean actor, / who went for the bucks rather than greatness,” in Eugene O’Neill’s tragic masterpiece portraying his own parents and the family from which he emerged. “Holding the script in [his] hand,” Ben imagines himself “not here in the conference room / of a backwater branch of the library,” but “at the Helen Hayes electrifying the audience.”

    Even without that poem, I would have thought of Long Day’s Journey into Night and of O’Neill’s dedication of that play to his wife in gratitude for her love, which enabled him to “face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness.” Willa, likewise, has faced her dead, and written of them with deep empathy. What she has done in Rending the Garment reminds me also of the final lines of Robert Lowell’s book-length sequence Day by Day:

    We are poor passing facts,
    warned by that to give
    each figure in the photograph
    his living name.

    She has given the woman and man in the photograph on the book’s front cover their living names—and voices.

    On the back cover of the book there is another, smaller photograph—of a small girl seen from behind as she walks away, holding a book. This is apparently the young Willa. The way she appears on the cover reflects the supporting role she plays in a book dominated by the figures of her parents. The final section, “Willa,” functions as a sort of coda after the climax of the title poem. Its most poignant poem, “Willa’s Hairs,” seems to be spoken in the voice of her husband, Robin: “I wonder… after she is gone, / could my green-eyed one be made again / from a single long white hair.”

    Some books of poetry leave memories of particular images or specific lines; others leave impressions of a certain emotional tone. Rending the Garment leaves me with the remarkable individuals to which it has given voice.

    Reviewer Bio: Eleanor Berry moved to the Salem area from Wisconsin in 1994. A former teacher of writing and literature at Willamette University, Marquette University, and other colleges, she is a past president of the Oregon Poetry Association, and serves on the boards of the Marion Cultural Development Corporation and the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. Her poetry and essays on poetry have been widely published in journals and anthologies. Her book Green November (Traprock Books, 2007) is a collection of poems derived from her acclimation to western Oregon.

  • Controlled Hallucinations by John Sibley Williams, reviewed by Penelope Scambly Schott

    March 27, 2014

    Review by Penelope Scambly Schott

    Controlled Hallucinations
    by John Sibley Williams

    FutureCycle Press
    ISBN 978 – 1938853227
    2013, 78 pp., $14.00
    http://johnsibleywilliams.wordpress.com

    This book is well-titled. It contains the poetry of allusion. Williams’ go-to symbols are such elements as the sea, mirrors, birds, or even gravity itself. These appear frequently in this poetry of transparent mystery.

    What is there is almost there. I don’t mean that the poems are vague – though they are short on specifics – if there is a tree we don’t know what kind of tree, if there is a bird, it is rarely named – but the poems create a hallucinatory aura of magic where everything stands for more than itself. Perhaps this is the quality that John Sibley Williams and Anatoly Molotov are embracing in the new journal The Inflectionist Review.

    The poems themselves are numbered rather than titled, thus coming at us like dreams without giving us any prompt or shove as to how to read or interpret. We do not gloss so much as experience. The magic of this world is not hidden but lurks near the surface.

    Williams is obsessed with language. Several poems in this volume might serve as an ars poetica. In poem XXI he says that even as a child when a storm was approaching and others did practical things,

    I would cry out a list of synonyms
    for what was to come:

    tempest blizzard gale squall cloudburst
    chaos
    upheaval

    He would survive via words and he can still “take comfort in their distance.”

    Here in its entirety is one of my favorite poems about his explorations of language:

    XLVIII

    Forks and knives dull,
    teeth worn down,
    I am left to eat
    in broken English.

    I try to step around the flavors
    passed through so many mouths,
    around the stacks
    of overused plates
    that have cracked with wear–
    the only plates at the table.
    I try to trace each cliche back
    to a curious hand
    tapping a white cane
    in hopes of rediscovering
    my blindness.

    How better to describe a search for the original freshness of English?

    Williams’ approach to defining the undefinable works especially well in his poems about love, that front-runner in indescribable human experiences. He asks, in poem IX,

    When does it end,
    this search for a more intimate gravity,
    this need to replicate embrace?

    Perhaps XLII offers a semi-answer: “Most of me/attended/the Big Bang/just to ask it/if other theories/were possible.” The speaker stomps around the cosmos waiting for an answer which he then can’t hear because “I’d left/my ears/far below/on your/sleeping chest.”

    Controlled Hallucinations is one of those unusual books that teaches you how to read it. Once I could let go and be taken up in the hallucinatory process, I learned to enjoy where it took me. You might too.

     

    Reviewer Bio: Penelope Scambly Schott’s most recent books are LOVESONG FOR DUFUR and LILLIE WAS A GODDESS, LILLIE WAS A WHORE.  Her verse biography A IS FOR ANNE: MISTRESS HUTCHINSON DISTURBS THE COMMONWEALTH received an Oregon Book Award.  She teaches an annual workshop in Dufur, Oregon.

  • Still Life with Judas and Lightning by Dawn Diez Willis, reviewed by Kelly Eastlund

    February 19, 2014

    Review by Kelly Eastlund

    Still Life with Judas and Lightning
    by Dawn Diez Willis

    Airlie Press
    ISBN 978-0-9821066-8-6
    2013, 71 pp, $15
    http://airliepress.org/still-life

    StillLifeWhen the title of a poetry book feels like a poem in itself, you know you are in for an enriching read. Still Life with Judas and Lightning, Dawn Diez Willis’s first full-length collection, fulfills that expectation, with poems that artfully explore big themes, including faith, loss, betrayal, death, and love.

    Nearly all the poems in the collection are free-verse narratives in third-person – a point of view that might feel detached in another poet’s hands, but which Willis brings to life with intimacy. I use the label “narrative” loosely, as the stories are not tidy arcs with clear resolution. Yet many of the poems could easily blossom into short stories or even novels. The characters she introduces, whether pulled from Biblical stories, history, art, personal experience or her imagination, feel achingly real and hook the reader into caring about them.

    Willis delves into the complexity of family relationships in many of the poems, particularly the pain of separation, both through death and estrangement. She beautifully expresses the human bonds that tie us even in the midst of abandonment and abuse, as illustrated in the heartbreaking “Second Week in Foster Care”:

    They want their own mother.
    blood-bonded and love-hobbled,
    the mother of fault and foil and belt,

    and in “Girl with Greenstick Fracture”:

    Still, it is not all purpled eye and cracked teeth
    knuckles unsheathed and time punched dumb.
    It is also love-struck palms on sheets,

    The book is rife with tragedy, but also hope and compassion. Flawed and fragile characters find comfort in the natural world and in their own strength. For example, in “Keith Decides to Live Anyway,” the reader can only guess “what he did and what was done to him,” but his shame is tempered by grace in the powerful closing lines:

    Even as he walks, he is surprised to wonder
    Where isn’t beauty hidden?

    Many of the characters in the poems also take comfort in religion (or try to). As one might expect from the book’s title, the Bible and faith figure prominently in the collection. Willis’s approach, however, is askance; the characters tend to be caught between longing for faith and the starkness of a seemingly random universe. In “Alma in the Camposantos” for example, Alma “tries to pray”:

    o splinter keeping company with splinter
    o air within a rinsed jar
    o nail and wrist fastened in loneliness
    something contain me
    fasten me, house me

    Willis has taught introductory art courses in addition to poetry and often draws inspiration from visual art. With keen curiosity, she explores the act of creation as well as the peripheral elements of art – the tools and materials from which art is made possible. In “After Rodin’s Danaϊd,” Willis turns her lens on the imagined model. Even readers unfamiliar with the sculpture will appreciate the magic of the art-life connection expressed here:

    When he is finished, she unfurls again into existence,
    remade from the person
    drowsing in the white load of rock.

    And of course, art and religion merge in the title poem, a startling word painting depicting the Biblical story of Judas’s suicide. As with all her subjects, Willis treats this one with enormous empathy. She portrays Judas not as villain but as human:

    His tongue lies burning in his mouth.
    What can words do now?

    The branch offers sanctuary from the world
    and its endless choosing,

    A cadre of outlaws weaves through the collection as well. Several iconic figures from the Wild West, including Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, and Billy the Kid make appearances. And again Willis takes a “behind the scenes” view, illuminating the contrast between romanticized personas and the haunted, broken lives they most likely led.

    I’ve focused more on subjects and themes here than on craft, but as you can glimpse from the excerpts above, Willis masterfully employs sound, rhythm, slant rhymes, dazzling language, and vivid imagery throughout the collection.

    As already mentioned, there’s a pervasive use of third person perspective. Willis offers a convincing and beautiful argument for that choice in her poem “Third Person Sacred” (which, interestingly, is written in the second person):

    Sometimes you think of your own story
    and it is both familiar and not,
    and you must question the details,
    the slant, the cant of its little roof and shutters,
    the home of what you know about yourself,

    Light spills down on the diorama
    and something has brought you here to witness
    the holy moment, any moment,

    Still Life with Judas and Lightning does exactly that – spilling light on moments both holy and ordinary, calling the reader to witness and to question the details of their own story. And I, for one, was grateful for that opportunity.

    ###

    Kelly Eastlund is a member of OPA, Lane Literary Guild, and the Red Sofa Poets critique group. Her poems have appeared in several journals, including Shot Glass Journal, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and The Whistling Fire. She lives in Springfield, Oregon, with her husband and two dogs.

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