Monday, November 16, 2009

TONGUE FOR FOLIE by Janice Brabaw


Janice Brabaw’s new book is unique. I say this, because she has managed to blend the thoughtful with the emotional in a way that is not only poetic, but artfully so. Almost immediately one can tell that Janice is not just writing from an honest place, but is using sound conventions to convey meaning. In a world of often times talented, but scattershot poetry, this is a refreshing change. Her common themes of insecurity, doubt, self-deprecation, and ultimately small hopes are crafted in such a way that instead of feeling pity for the author, the reader feels empathy. In my estimation evincing empathy might be the highest goal of any writer. Her poems do this through a careful, measured sense of rhythm, word usage, and innate skill. A prime example is her poem, “off”:

I wake up with yesterday in my mouth
and thus begins the list of failures and faults.
I should've brushed my teeth instead
of falling asleep on the couch watching cartoons.

I should learn to hide my phone from myself -- 
No more insecure dialing on a Sunday night.
And while I'm at it, I should simply grow up
and stop being the fucked up girl that I am.

Not sure why I hate myself today --
Perhaps nothing a shower and slap can't help.
My orientation is misaligned 
with your magnetic north.

I hate moments when I am today and yesterday
at once.  I see only this in my tealeaves.
I am at the bottom of an endless, dry well.
I look up and there is just one way to go.

This is where I put myself
once again, once again.
But yet I blame it on a vertigo, a push,
not a careless and practiced fall
not my unsteady footing, or my propensity
to give in to gravity when challenged.

I like this poem, because I know this woman. I have met her in my life and seen the hurt, tenderness, and hope in her eyes, sitting in a café, the subway, on a park bench. There is universality to the self-deprecation and a fine sense of tooled introspection to the verse. Almost all of the poems share this commonality and thus take the reader through her mind one emotion at a time. To a large extent, it is very satisfying.

However, if the collection has any flaws, it is that we immediately get to know the poet within the first ten pages. After that we are listening to roughly the same story, just set in different scenarios. Although never trite, boring, or pedantic, the collection does have a sameness that could have been spiced with a few poems about the defiant victories we want to see in any anti-hero. In fact, it needs the minor victories we crave to re-affirm our own hopes. Also, the poems tend to be on the long side. (the above quoted is one of the shortest) So, if you plan on reading one poem at a time, sitting, pondering, and coming back tomorrow for more, you are perfectly suited to this accomplished collection. But, if you are like me, and want to read the whole book straight through, you might be there for a while. Yet, that is just a matter of reading style, not quality.

The quality of this work is undeniable. Brabaw is a talented writer and it is refreshing to see some truly thoughtful, palpable poetics out there. Beyond the mere cathartic, rough-and-tumble poetry of the post-Beats, this book is an uncomfortable, yet endearing companion. A keeper.

Opinion: Good Read

-review by GJ


130 pages
Perfect bound



Thursday, November 12, 2009

ANGLES of DISORDER by Zachary C. Bush


Right now I feel disoriented, I feel like I’m on an elevator to Hell that could drop into a pit of daisies at any moment, and while this is nothing new, it’s rare when it’s a book that takes me there. Zachary C. Bush’s Angles of Disorder is such a book.

Let me start off by saying, that I had heard of Mr. Bush before sitting down to read this morning and as is the case with most authors, small press or otherwise, I was prepared to hate EVERYTHING, I was prepared to savage words with words, but I can’t do that here because Bush’s book is a rare find in the world of publishing, it is actually interesting.

Bush’s words, are they poems or fiction? I couldn’t really tell, but then who cares. Angles of Disorder isn’t a book that exists to offer its readers any answers, but it does leave plenty to think about. I will say this, from the very beginning of this carnival ride, I call it that, because that’s what it feels like, a sense of permanent deja vu sets in and just refuses to leave. Bush’s pieces are more than just fucked up slices of life, or prose paintings turned sideways, they are glimpses into an alternate reality, they are our dreams turned inside out, honest, they exist without an ounce of pretense.

All of this said, the book’s title feels like a soft lie. There is an order to everything in the universe of this book, a carefully crafted sense of memory, with an almost narrative structure. After all, the book’s tales offer images that could happen every day and in fact I’m sure they do.

I know very little, if anything, about the author’s past collections, future aspirations, or how one leads into the other to help form the words in Angles of Disorder.  In the end though, none of that matters. The hardest part of having to review this book is that I can’t tell you that you will like it, whether you will think it’s good, bad, or even downright amazing. I can only say that my gut tells me that the writing inside is strong, and I think that’s as much as Zachary C. Bush himself could or would tell you.

Go with your gut. Would I recommend picking a copy? YES. But don’t expect flowers or soccer mom musings strait out of the pages of Ploughshares. Something about this book left me freaked out and hoping that I don’t run into Zachary C. Bush on the street, though maybe I already have, maybe that is the point after all, I’d like to think so.

Opnion: GOOD READ

96pgs. 
Published by BlazeVox Books, 2009.


Review By: JD

                                 

Saturday, October 31, 2009

AMERICAN MEANS by D.E. Oprava




D.E. Oprava’s American Means is an epic poem, in ninety-two pages, twenty sections and a short coda.  Despite its length, after reading it, re-reading it and reading it again, I know nothing about the poet’s relationship with his father, how he responds to trees or sunsets or whether or not he has the capability to become a stitch in poetry’s rich tapestry by executing a sonnet, ode or villanelle about his feelings for his lover, perhaps, expressed via the extended metaphor of eating a bowl of soup, or God forbid, the act of writing a poem.

This is because, in the context of contemporary English-language poetry, David Oprava has done an unusual thing: he has written a book that sustainedly engages with and explores an important public and political theme (broadly, the state of contemporary America) and is not, like most other books of poetry (collections?), a series of disparate personal observations and experiences refracted through the disengaged yet narcissistic lens of a le poeme pour le poeme sensibility.   And you know why he has done this, why he has been able to do this?  Because, Oprava’s point of departure in American Means is that he’s got something to say; he’s not just an Eng Lit whizz-kid with an arguable flair for language who wants to be a writer as an end-in-itself.

Borne of ‘frustration and hope with an aim to cross the divide between the poetic, the political and the purely academic’, American Means (a triple pun – read it and get it) is a despairing lament for what America has become and an inchoate call for revival.  Oprava’s deeply felt position is not an original one: the blame for America’s decline from Leave it to Beaver to Generation Kill is laid squarely at the door of the conspiratorial, election stealing, waterboarding, greed-is-good, moral-panic-mongering forces of darkness that have undermined tolerance and social justice in America for decades, in the modern era culminating in the grotesque perversity of the Bush II years.  For all that, American Means is a poem of hope, and a large chunk of Oprava’s hope, certainly according to the poem’s coda, seems pinned on Barack Obama.  Whether this is because Oprava genuinely believes that Obama has the wherewithal to steer America in a more progressive direction, or simply that he’s not a skull and bones WASP looking to exploit the country for the benefit of a plutocrat elite, is moot.

American Means is a road trip through USA 2009 in two main voices, ‘she’ and ‘he’.  Via the voices of these characters, we encounter despair at what America has become and hope for what America might be (once again).  ‘She’, is a nameless woman who has been deserted by her man (‘Greed’).   The protagonists are allegorical; on my reading, ‘she’ is America, or at any rate, the ‘innocent’ America, the working people, the salt-of-the-earth left bereft and despairing by out-of-control capitalists and the pervasive ideology of hyper-acquisitiveness that has thrust the world into recession and in doing so maimed uncounted lives.  As we read on, other capitalized allegories of American archetypes – Waste, Sloth, Avarice, Faith, Charity – think Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy (Murder, Fraud, etc) are introduced.  I’m not sure this device works, or is necessary.  The old dictum ‘show not tell’ comes to mind; perhaps fewer voices, allowed to organically become fully rounded characters, as well as allegorical representations, would have been more impactful?

‘She’ remains the main protagonist nevertheless, and American Means progresses via her travelogue through recession stricken America, a Grapes of Wrath style journey to find hope and a future.  Along the way, after first being run down by the heavy-handed metaphor of an out-of-control ‘eighteen wheeler’, she ranges across (allowing the narrator to critique) various aspects of the contemporary USA – the healthcare system, poverty, apathy, gun-culture, imperial decline, feminism and many more.
American Means is written in a loosely associative, lyrical free verse.   The mood is wistful and pensive, the opening lines of the poem being typical - ‘This land, a lonesome notion/whose hopes hang on clothes-/pinned winds, chafing, ideals tied to the/forsaken roots of what’s been.’    However, for all its sensitivity, this is passionate and angry writing – Oprava writes like a wounded animal – ‘A new no man’s land creeping/cross country with the/dispossessed sleeping in /shanty towns whilst their/repossessed homes lie empty … turn children out on the/street … vandals sack and loot … the principles of free-market/draconian-isms’ - showing vulnerability, anger and pain.
As might be expected from such a long and ambitious work, there is some unevenness.  Although 

Oprava’s language is always evocative, his imagery and references are sometimes too disparate and require tighter wiring.  Although you can see what the poet is aiming for, and admire the lyrical ingenuity, in something like, 
‘ … the/Gotterdammerung gearing-up at/the Last Chance Diner, lost in/the pulled-tooth range of a/once-upon west, mining/companies gone with hammer and/tong leaving no fiscal/dentures to fill the mountainous gaps,’ the over-complex metaphor seems forced and focuses the reader less on the affect of the language, but the virtuosity of the writer, dissipating impact.  Sometimes less is more.
The weary tone and excursive narrative style of American Means put me in mind of Amours de Voyage by the Victorian poet, Arthur Hugh Clough.  As with Amours, American Means is an accessible, intelligent read that is easy to settle into and encourages further reading – a virtue in a long poem.  However, it shares with Amours a lack of variety in pace, intensity and format that can sometimes result in a flat, monotonous effect, allowing the reader’s attention to drift.

Despite this, there’s some great writing in American Means (‘an uppity mobile home fuelled on/bottled gas rots in weeds/nestled amongst old tires’; ‘Cop doesn’t care for the look/of the man hovering at the gas/station pumps, skulking naked-/faced and scribble-lipped’) and some cracking sardonic lines (‘this is what Jesus would/have done on a welfare check,/got drunk and bought a gun).   Oprava is always attentive to the possibilities of language and wordplay proliferates (‘the milk’s cheesed off’, ‘beating it flaccid’, ‘waging sense on the automatons pressing flesh in the trading halls’) without ever giving the impression that he is merely a ‘clever’ writer.

As ‘she’ progresses cross country to the ‘continental divide’, middle America/ordinary Americans is/are encountered in towns, diners, bars and in the landscape; it seems to be here, in the ‘middle of elsewhere’ (as opposed to the ‘coastal crust’) where the people have ‘no malice or leering eye’ and cling to ‘home and family … a job and a car that’s seen better days’ that hope and decency is to be found, primarily articulated in the voice of ‘he’, who ‘she’ encounters in the latter sections and who I can’t help but feel is an alter-ego of the poet himself.   In finding hope in middle-America, Oprava’s position echoes that of the Simpsons’ Ned Flanders, who responds to actress Sarah Sloane’s patronizing metropolitan jibe, ‘I didn’t know there were still people like you left,’ with, ‘Yep.  We occupy that useless bit of land between New York and Los Angeles called America.’   
The poem ends with an appeal to ‘turn back ways’, implicitly to the core values of decency embodied in middle-America, to find ‘hope/a new American mean’.  A coda follows, the heart-on-sleeve Hope, a poem originally written to commemorate Obama’s inauguration as President, in which the narrator outlines his impassioned hope that Obama can lead the regeneration of a nation.
Oprava is to be congratulated for his ambition, and American Means is some achievement; but the question remains – has he pulled it off?  Has he managed, over the 92 pages of this mammoth poem, to sustain engagement with his theme and maintain the quality of writing, insight and structure to the extent that American Means can be adjudged a realized, ‘successful poem’ and not merely a ‘laudable attempt’?    

By and large, I think he has, although I do have reservations; the thinking-out-loud, narrative style of American Means can lead to prolixity and excursis; it is perhaps too panoramic, too all-encompassing, which sometimes leads to generalisation and abstraction.  The many allegorical voices/characters can be confusing.  The summarizing interjections of the narratorial voice are sometimes intrusive.   Overall, I can’t help but feel the whole would’ve been be sharper and more polished if it had undergone a more rigorous editing process, that impression perhaps being confirmed by the presence of some erratic punctuation and possible typos. 

Overwhelmingly though, kudos to Oprava; he has made an honest, heartfelt and often successful attempt to engage with an important theme, and beyond that, with a world that many poets barely acknowledge the existence of  - the world outside themselves and their personal experience.  American Means contains much admirable writing, a good deal of insight and a richness and intelligence that repay re-reading.   If you’re going to buy a book of poetry this week, buy this one; a big, risky, aspirational work - flawed, yes, but with flaws that come with reach; far better that than the more typical poetry book experience – being underwhelmed by an arbitrary arrangement of safe and (sometimes) perfect forms.

-reviewed by SE



poetry
96 pages





Wednesday, October 14, 2009

TREE by Ursula Hurley


Like all good people, I like trees, and I like poetry; well, good poetry anyway.   And if that poetry somehow involves trees – think Binsey Poplars, Bare Almond Trees, Birches, Elm and so on - then so much the better; nothing like the synergy of combined passions.
            So to Tree, by Ursula Hurley, a self-described ‘nature poet’, one for whom the natural world provides ‘endless material’ and for whom each poem is ‘another attempt to capture an impression of the wonders that surround us’, in this collection, via forty ‘rich, passionate and intelligent poems’ exploring the ‘city/nature interface … celebrating the elemental and modern’.   
            Despite the blurb, with its unnecessary striving for ‘contemporary relevance’, I’m encouraged.  After all, isn’t much of the best and most relevant English poetry, from the Old English Maxims to Ted Hughes, essentially rooted in the bucolic tradition?   And don’t forget.  I like trees.  So here we go.    
            The opening, eponymous poem, a paean to an unspecified tree, gets the collection off to an uncertain start, setting the tone for the collection as a whole.  Some evocative images (the ‘blue fire’ of magpies’ wings, ‘brocades of moss and lichens’) are juxtaposed with the over-adjectival, gratuitously metaphorical striving-for-effect of self-consciously ‘creative writing’ (‘gnarled dun bark’, a magpie’s nest in the tree’s branches compared, unaptly, to ‘an oyster proudly bearing its pearl’).    The  sub-Wordsworthian protagonism of the final two stanzas, ‘If I could touch you/tree … then I would know/your breathing leaves’ strikes a false note (think the last stanza of Hughes’ Horses, or Heaney’s The Tolllund Man (‘Some day I will go to Aarhus’) and is essentially meaningless; faux-wistful echt-poetic posturing.
            Equinox, an imagistic sequence of enjambed haiku-like stanzas, shares with Tree the desire to capture the moment’, but stumbles due to imprecision (‘gawky greenfinches’), clumsy syntax (‘Sliding away towards winter earth turns’), and pedestrian phrasing (‘Dahlias glow black-red’).  However, the ‘wings catching rainbows’ of the ‘inebriated’ crash-landed bee is vivid and evocative.
            In her quest to ‘capture an impression of the wonders that surround us’, Hurley often strives for the snap-shot compression of haiku-like forms.  The six short, alternately indented lines of Sun and mountain are certainly evocative, but ultimately empty of real meaning, and with the two-line Hope‘The sky clear-pale and cold-grey/A vase of daffodils upon a clean windowsill’ – you wonder what the point is.
            You are an airport, I am soap, seems to be about a failed relationship – he’s flown off and she’s washed her hands of him - and although it contains some striking writing, particularly the last stanza (‘Possibilities whispered through plastic bags snared/in the branches of the ash tree’), it is ultimately too disparate in imagery and too personal in reference to connect with any power.   The title and punning epigraph ‘For Lax from LUx’ come across as a little bit too-clever.
            Many poems are more ‘experimental’ in form and use of language.  The imagistic Black bird, with its peculiar spacing of words and lines has the appearance of a ‘shape poem’ and contains the excellent lines, ‘everything quivers with vitreous light/shadows sliding/along greasy pavements’.  The Black bird (sic?), holding a red berry in its yellow bill is vivid; however, the apparently arbitrary form, puzzling punctuation and the use of the verb ‘leaks’ to unaptly describe music heard from a open van-window, undermine. 
            The central poem of Tree and by far the longest, is the three-section, three-and-a –half-page Cathedral notes.  In an interview with ‘partner in poetry’ Andrew Taylor at poetrymagazines.org, Hurley indicates that the genesis of the poem lay in a challenge from Taylor to Hurley to respond poetically to Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, a place of significance to Taylor she had come to regard as ‘spiritually oppressive’.  Parts I and II narrate the speaker’s unease in journeying to the Cathedral; however, these sections are ultimately unsatisfactory, as there is no clue at all why the speaker should be uneasy and consequently both sections read as preambling, excursive travelogues. 
            We have to wait until section III before explanations are given to account for the speaker’s unease: three are advanced: the speaker’s fear of others recognizing her ‘pagan soul’; her self-ascribed unworthiness in the eyes and opinions of the presumed devout; and, the feeling of physical or spiritual oppression engendered by the scale (‘enormity of the space above’) of the cathedral.  However there is a distinct lack of content and intensity to this ‘crisis’; it’s just not convincing (perhaps she could’ve generated some tension by having the speaker break out into a projectile vomiting fit on sight of the holy building, like young Damien Thorn - his Dad was the original pagan soul).  The poem ends, bizarrely and bathetically, with the speaker seeming to hope that she’ll get a poem out of the visit – ‘Hoping/that this space/will germinate words’.    Is that it?   Has experience itself no value, meaning or merit?    Or is it just a sequence of poem opportunities?  Poems are not ends-in-themselves.
            And yet, there some real quality in Tree.  Poems like I will pick flowers for you ‘old chard and nasturtiums knocked sprawling by frost’; ‘Water dripped from the chestnut/tree, dying assuredly yet outliving us all.  We gathered/conkers on the dark lawn/Needing to hold life in our hands and keep it’ – are the real thing.   Hurley can certainly write - but I’m not sure she’s yet got anything to say.   In these poems she comes across as a tourist of her own experience, and as a result, her sensibility is trapped in the reactive promiscuity of occasional verse.  
            There are many trees in Tree, but Hurley hasn’t really made any of them her own.  Hopkins’ lament for the felled poplars at Binsey was not so much an ecological protest poem about trees, but a displaced expression of the aesthetic and spiritual crisis that dominated his sensibility; Plath’s violent and disturbing Elm parades her familiar demons and is only in point-of-departure a ‘response’ to a tree; in the extended metaphor of Birches, Frost rehearses another of the misanthropic generalizations on the human condition that is his defining characteristic.   Perhaps Hurley needs to forget about ‘responding’ to trees and cathedrals and such-like and begin to write herself.  


-review by SE


Friday, October 9, 2009

UNKNOWABLE BUT CERTAIN by Billy Childish


The first word that comes to mind after reading Billy Childish’s new book is HUMAN. Of course all poets are human, but often times they obfuscate their humanity with abstractions and pretense to the point that the words might have been written by a poetry text book and not a poet. From the intentional misspellings and disregard for punctuation, Childish wrote a book that doesn’t care about convention. In fact, I am not sure he cares about the reader at all. Beyond the artist’s innate need to express, there is something more in this book. There is a mind at work. As I read through the book (3 times in fact) I felt as if I was inside his thoughts rather than reading his poems. There is an intimacy to the language and no separation between sentiment, meaning, and delivery. This is a nice feat that makes the book exceedingly readable, almost subliminal.
One poem that especially got into my head and under my skin is

“to get to the bambies”

at 3
she tried to open the door
of a speeding car
to get
to the bambies.

(they were doing 70 on the motorway and
there were no deer)

at 43
her hand is still
on the doorhandle

Not only can I see this scenario and feel the workings of a child-adult’s mind, but I am also immediately transported through forty years of time in the blink of an eye. I am left to fill in the gaps with my own imagination; therefore, the poem, in its simplicity, gives me the bare bones of a deep sentiment that I can then manipulate to serve my own needs. No mean feat. In fact, it is an excellent example of seemingly effortless poetics that hits just the right chord. Again, I am impressed with this work.

The other poems in the book are equally evocative in a subtle, matter of fact way. He avoids grand allusion and relies on his memories, imagination, and internal struggles to draw the reader into his family, his infidelities, his ignoble defeats, and a few hardened triumphs. All in all, more than a solid book of poems, it is a palpable book whose tactile words and sentiments are as real as the rough card cover and deeply stamped intentions, a trademark of all beautifully crafted Blackheath books.

I’ll read this book again, and then again, at times when I need some grounding, some perspective on my own dilemmas, and an escape into the mind of another in those times when my own has become just a little bit too cluttered.

Opinion: Great Read



-review by GJ

56 pages
perfect bound
ISBN: 978-1-906099-19-0

Friday, September 11, 2009

HELLBOUND by David McLean

There are a lot of things one might say about David McLean’s new collection, Hellbound, including “don’t read this before you go to sleep.” But the one word that came back to me again and again was inescapable. There is a setting for this book, based largely on the cult horror movie Hellraiser (1987), and McLean constantly makes references to the movie, its characters, and the overall plot. I’ve never seen the movie; therefore, I felt as if I needed to research it. Which, I did. I have to admit it never would have occurred to me to write a collection of poems so closely wed to a Clive Barker film. Original. But, I wanted to believe that there was more to the poems than references to a flick and I needed to feel that I could read the book without seeing or knowing anything about Hellraiser. So I read the book trying to find the poetry behind the words, without the horror. It was hard, but in the end, I did find what I was looking for.
The first poem that struck me for its meaning and individuality was called the worst hell:
the worst hell for a devil
is one where eyes are sewn shut
so you cannot see the suffering you inflict
on others. the worst hell for a lover
is when the loved one never suffers.
I liked this one, because there were no references to meat, blood, hooks, chains, Cenobites, or Pinhead. This poem easily stands alone and captures a feeling I’ve known. So, there is humanity in the book after all. But, there is also a lot of inhumanity. Many of the poems delve further and deeper into the concept of Hell, suffering, and the reader is invaded by a thoroughly convincing sense of nihilism. McLean is effective in creating this hopeless atmosphere and twists his hooks a little bit more every chance he gets. Again, the theme is inescapable. But, in exposing so much inhumanity, he is making a point. Much of humanity is inhumane. Clever.
And, there are other shining moments.
In a number of poems he explores our concepts of good and evil, then he shuns them as relative terms, and looks harder at topics like innocence, children, Heaven, and God. This book takes on a philosophical bent as McLean dissects who we are and what we are, what moral battles we fight (and ultimately lose) and how Hell is a concept (even an existence) we create, not necessarily a place where we go. In a sense, it is something to which we are literally bound. Interesting. 
To be honest, at first I found it hard to get past the horror hyperbole of the book, but once I knew what to look for, I found and enjoyed the serious thought and observation that went into this creation. It is not a monster read, it is not a cult movie pastiche, rather it is an exploration of humanity’s darker side (although, like good and evil, light and dark are relative, and as McLean might put it, such maudlin introspection and comparison is boring) so I came to appreciate its breadth and scale of thought instead. I personally think the collection would be stronger without the movie references, but that is my small opinion. There is more than enough in there to set the mind in motion and to ask questions about our own perceptions of who and what we seem to be, and even more importantly, where we are going with this thing called life. Oblivion, Heaven, or Hellbound?


Opinion: Fine Read


-reviewed by GJ


48 pages 
Saddle-Stitched
color laminated cover

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

NEXT to GUNS by Lara Konesky

I often wonder how the feminist icon Sylvia Plath would have written had she been born in the 1970s or 80s. Often lauded as the head of a movement so blinded, that they chipped her name off her headstone, Plath seems rather a saintly figure remembered as an unfortunate “victim” at the hands of her husband. But what about the poetry? Ah, the poetry…
There seems a new generation of American women poets taking up Plath’s poetic mantle, who are writing as though their lives depended upon it. Lara Konesky is no exception. Unaware of her work until this Grievous Jones book, I am glad to meet her acquaintance. This handsome book saddled with an enticing cover of a woman, pierced belly button and holding a gun over her naked crotch, sets the tone at once. These poems are raw, powerful, sexy and cut to the chase. With an impressive conciseness, Konesky powers through the shorter poems like a woman on a mission.
The poem ‘Porn’ is worth quoting in full as it not only highlights Lara’s tone and sense of humour, but I sense an underlying poetics, the poetics of honesty.


I was trying to seduce you.
But you already jerked off twice today to internet
porn
I guess I should be grateful you aren’t cheating,
just beating?
wow.
I didn’t even mean to do that.


This compositional honesty is hinted at throughout the book and draws the reader to the poet. From recently ‘meeting’ Lara I feel as though I could happily spend an hour or two cracking open a bottle of Famous Grouse and talking poetry and life and life and poetry.
Making poetry out of experience is nothing new, (see Plath) but making poetry out of these kinds of experiences is I feel, part of the post-post-modern condition of being a woman poet writing in the USA today. Of course, I’d know all about that being a male poet based in Liverpool! What I mean to say is, these poems offer a refreshing perspective of what it means to be young, attractive and talented living and experiencing the world as we live in it today.
Lara Konesky’s strengths run wider than writing poems about her boyfriend’s jerking off over porn, pill popping, texting and sex. The poem ‘Tears’ is beautiful in its simplicity:


I think she has the flu…she has been in the
bathroom for years
I think she fell in love with you
she is busy flushing tears


As the great Puma Perl says in her rear-cover blurb, ‘hot chicks/never die/they watch/and wait’, well, I for one, despite not being a hot chick, will be waiting eagerly to see what Konesky’s next move will be.  As a debut collection, this is as strong and as powerful, and as worthy as they come. Highly, highly, recommended. Sylvia would be proud.


-reviewed by AT
(note: Grievous Jones never reviews any of our books "in house", reviews are only presented by writers not associated with, or published by GJ Press)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

URCHIN BELLE by Jenni Fagan

I opened this book of poems and was immediately put off. The first few lines go...


You are a Celtic Tanaiste,
the first crunch of frost
a whorl of midwinter mist
silently silvering the moss.

You are bracken crackling,
a peaty alchemical gold
a thread of smoke spiralling
a thistle on a pebble shore…



...and I didn't get it. That's because I am a fool who prejudges too easily. Or maybe because I didn't know what a Tanaiste was. I still don't, and I am still a fool. But then I met Jenni for the second time, got so drunk I don't know how I got home, and woke up with the book next to my hotel room bed. I read it beginning to end whilst steaming hung-over, and fell in love. 
I think what had me smitten was the indented text on the back of the thick, heavy, rough paper cover. I won't tell you what it says (buy the book and find out for yourself) but I have to say, it is the best back-cover blurb I have ever read. Also, the poems were good, and got better, and better. 
Jenni can be a prickly person, I imagine. This comes across in the poems. They are about toughness. About a rough life, growing up in ways most can't imagine and about kicking ass, kicking her way out of what WAS into what she is NOW: a very charming, witty, sly, and most un-urbane person. There's something feral in the writing, a derailing of common verse, a story, after story, after story in layers of personal history and actuality that hurt to read at points. I know I am too soft, but hell, this can get brutal and... I love the book for it. 
I'd like to find an appropriate element to compare the poems to, but my lack of knowledge when it comes to the periodic table is lamentable. Imagine something harder than diamonds on the outside with a whisky spiked softness and barbs on the inside. This is how the words come across, a pointed tenderness to their interior with an uncompromisingly stiff lip in their delivery. Nothing is sanguine in this book, nothing trite, just lots of sharp, small bites that, with each read, become more and more comfortable, a pleasurable pain. (now that is trite, but it's my fault, not hers)
It also has to be mentioned, nothing is as nice as holding a hand-made book. How Geraint at Blackheath Books gets the effect he gets (rough brown paper, thick pages, hand-printed type...) is beyond me. The physical presence of the book is lush, forget about the words. But, the words are the point, right?
Few books have guts and even fewer are actually moving. This one is both. 
So buy the damn book and find out what the back says, but hurry, it's almost sold-out. That says volumes right there. 


Opinion: Excellent Read


-reviewed by GJ
BUY THE BOOK HERE!

MAKE SOME NOISE by Andrew Taylor

The best way to describe Andrew Taylor’s new chapbook is twilight. I felt as if I was constantly in a winter moment, streetlights just coming on, a stray cat wandering across the pavement, and the sun barely there. This book is about moments, private moments and observations. It is a certain kind of poetry that captures the essence of THEN. There is no story-line per se, no real movement or fancy word-play, this is just a book about time and place. Also, it is very British. The title, MAKE SOME NOISE: The Woking Poems, leads one to believe they are based in Woking. Seems logical. So, where the hell is Woking? Well, it is south-west of London. I’ve never been there myself, but the book gives me enough of a sense of what it must be like I don’t really need to go there.
The poems are also about riding in cars, being close to motorways, lights, things, etc. Again, they are all very situational. My favorite poem of the book is a list poem. This one I think is quite clever, because it uses enough archetypical imagery so that I felt like I knew the essence of the poem without having to drive to Woking to understand it (maybe because part of it takes place in New York City, I assume). It is called These are the things that kill me…An excerpt:


Eggs Benedict Washington Square diner, Verte Valee shirts,
calls from Parisian telephone boxes, Amelie, So Said Kay,
Billy's 13,000 photographic archive, Jess and her big brown
eyes, John Miller's paintings, plans to demolish Stanley Dock
and its warehouses.

I think Andrew is being a bit daring with this book. It is dedicated to a specific man and I think that the poems are relative to that individual. In that sense the entire small collection, approximately 26 pages in all, is homage to a period and a person. Since I don’t know the person or the author’s relationship to that person, I had to take the book at its face value; a snapshot. A view inside of a mind as it recorded vignettes that froze in the author’s passing wake. I think this kind of poetry has a certain value and for British readers will be appealing for its common-experiential nature. For anyone else, it will be a peek at a special, personal world, at twilight.

Opinion: Fine Read

-reviewed by GJ

Friday, September 4, 2009

WITH THE PATIENCE of MONUMENTS by Jack Henry

What has Jack Henry done? He wrote a book of good poems. Ok, many people write decent books of poetry and some are lauded for their clever use of words, their sense imagery, etc. and they end up in glossy magazines and win awards and everyone smiles and thinks they are such wonderful poets, again, etc.  Jack’s not that kind of guy. Jack has some serious doubts about his own being, let alone his writing. He’s honest about this in the beginning of his new collection, with the patience of monuments. So why read something that is not on the tip of everyone’s tongue? Because, he wrote it, it’s human, and it’s exactly what a good book of poetry should be. No pretense, a fair bit of introspection, doubt, longing, and some great, great imagery. This small stanza struck me from the beginning:
“but that’s not the point 
i am more like a sea monkey
in a jar of  Vaseline set upon a shelf  
with a dusty lid  
next to a peeling dildo,
the one that hasn’t touched
hot flesh in fifteen years”
I like this because I can see it, I can relate to it, and I think I know what it means. It’s the kind of stanza that lingers with you for a while wondering, am I that dildo? More than likely, yes. Taking it even a step further, he inserts a healthy dose of imagination into his work. Not that his poems are fiction in a cloying, childish way, rather, he plays with persona and place in a way that puts the reader into the mindset of the poet. Although I usually tend to like writers who write straight-gut-shot from the heart, Jack likes to dance a bit with illusions and emotions and in this case, it works. It works, because there is a beating need behind it, a fragile one, a many times broken but still pumping one. I didn’t love every poem, but I didn’t need to. I needed to like the soul of the book, and I can say that I truly do.
If it comes down to buying yet another volume of Bukowski from the mega-book-mart’s meager poetry aisle or getting this book wherever you can find it, leave your barista-spat-in drink in the parking lot and drive until you get to Jack’s place. Say HI for me, I’d like to meet him someday.


Opinion: Good Read

-reviewed by GJ 

NeoPoiesis Press, LLC / 2009
156 pp. / $ 16.95

A BELLYFUL of ANARCHY by Rob Plath

Rob Plath is a writing steamroller fuelled by vodka, whisky, and vitriol. He chugs cigarette smoke and verse into an already crowded atmosphere of hard-edged, but mostly hackneyed writing. I wish this were hyperbole, but it’s not. His new collection, Bellyful of Anarchy, is a monster. Its over 250 pages literally weighing a ton of angst, reflection, and some dark-ass imagery of a most honestly poetic kind. One of the best things about Rob’s writing, and there are many, is that it’s real. I’ve never felt like I was being sucked into a shadowy morass of metaphor or allusion. His poems are concrete and this is a good thing. Reading one of them is like taking a shot at the local dive, you can hear the blather, the clatter, the fug, the cheap lipstick, it’s all-good.
But that is also part of the problem. It’s a lot to read and the theme is unwaveringly consistent. Down and out, a broken past, too many scars to count. There is something of redemption in there, somewhere, I know it, but good luck finding it.
Aside from the constant slide into a bathtub of blood and razor blades, this collection is one of the best ones out there today. It’s not cheap in any sense of the word. At $25 it’s a lot, but, it’s worth it. Why? Because, it is a hard kick in the nuts to a paradigm of poetry that has little-to-no guts and I applaud its necessary audacity. This book proves that there is beauty in repulsion and pulchritude in the plainly rude.
This is the kind of book I want to literally hit people with and scream, “Here, suck on this for a while and when your head stops spinning, tell me you’re not moved to look at poetry in a different light.” It’s a great book, because it is a catalyst, it will hopefully move people to use poetry as a mirror, a reality check, a reflection of what we are past the façade and flesh. Now, read it and tell me if you find hope in it. Then again, who the hell needs hope?


Opinion: Good Read

-reviewed by GJ

302 pages
perfect bound
full color laminated cover

FROSTBITTEN by Mark Walton



I bought this book. Actually, I needed to buy it. It was shipped to me over 5000 miles from the depths of Canada (even though Mark only lives 150 miles from me.) I wanted to have it in my palms, on my flesh, because from the moment I read a few of the poems I knew this was something special. I don’t often feel this way about books and if I am going to spend money on the damn things, I want it sitting next to my bed so I can look at it, read it, feel it, often. So why is Mark’s book special? Notice I didn’t say great, lovely, amazing, whatever, I said special. Because, these poems, and there aren’t many of them (only a large handful really) are about love. Not love in the LOVE sense with flowers and kisses and downy skin and soft eyes and fuck, but rather love in the unshaven, rough handed, tender soul under the tattooed heart kind of sense. Long before I ever met Mark in person, I could tell this from the words. There’s a love of life in the book, an honesty of emotion and there is never any wondering who or from where the poems are speaking. It’s him. In a world of poetic bitching and cathartic rants, this collection is written with finesse and confidence. Even better, the poems are NOT written in the sometimes dysentery-like flood that some poets seem to favor. In fact, I would even go so far as to say some of the poems are downright heart wrenching, and although I despise the general use of clichéd terms, I can’t find another one to capture that essence. Heart wrenching.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this book is not a sob story. It’s not a “play on your emotions with platitudes and banalities weep in the bathroom” kind of book. Instead, Mark’s work is something that I can read without criticism, cynicism, or competitive rancor. I couldn’t write these poems if I tried. I haven’t lived them, he has. And that is what is so special about them. No one else could do this. His voice, experience, and tone are uniquely his. Long after he is gone, this work will speak, because he’s not grinding the same stones and sleeping in the same bed as everyone else. He lives on a houseboat for Christ’s sake. I envy him, but in the way you love someone just for being them. I love this book for being exactly what it is: worthy. 


Opinion: Excellent Read

-review by GJ

48 pages
saddle stitched
$7.50 USD

Thursday, September 3, 2009

DEAD END ROAD by Richard Wink

Some books have atmosphere. As if a collection of poems could be wrapped in fog, sun, pain, etc. This was my first impression of Richard Wink's new work, there is an atmosphere here. I couldn't put my finger on what it was and to be honest, it took me a while until I could get a grip on it. I think I had a hard time placing it, because this work is delicate. It has a quiet sensibility who's richness and finer points blend into the grey of the English backdrop from which he carefully pulls his punches. Many of the poems are observational, people eating sausage-rolls, mothers smoking over their children, old people scared of life around them, these poems have real texture. And then, planted like rocks in a gently undulating field, there is a real glimpse into Richard himself. A poem about a love, about a sadness, about a dodgy summer job. These vignettes reflect the personality of the author and are handholds throughout the book. They give the reader a geographical hard point amidst the East Anglian verse that rolls, and rolls, and rolls.
Richard's book is best read slow, listening to it's quiet observations and looking into the words. Nothing will hit you over the head in this book, but if you reach your hand in just that little bit further, into the poems, you might just get bitten, in the good, do that again kind of way.

Opinion: Good Read

-reviewed by GJ

BUY THE BOOK HERE!
126 pages
Perfect Bound
Be Write Books

ANTISOCIAL by David Blaine


Now this is my kinda’ book. With “Antisocial” David Blaine has tapped into something that I can get, really, really get. As soon as I read these words in the first few pages, let’s piss on the rules, blow the door off this shit house, and open a window, on our own potential…” I knew I’d have to read the whole damn thing straight through. This book is about me in a lot of ways, a guy getting older, trying to figure out the tangled wires of life experience, getting closer to an unknown end, and mildly, quietly shitting himself that God might just not be there, or even worse, he might. I cruised gladly through the quick-witted and visceral poems until I came to “Glitterati” and I was stopped right there, in the moment, in the reflective emotion, and even better, he mentions a Cadillac El Dorado (my dream car) and it was all perfect. But then, holy crap, it got better. I read “They Looked Like Trash” and tumblers clicked, mental locks dropped their panties, and this was a poem that defines what modern poetry should be. It’s simple, smooth, but chipped on the surface and on closer inspection it goes miles and miles down into the soul of the matter. It’s a poem about humanity, about the faces we are stuck with and our supposed creator, it’s about crap you find at yard sales. I had one of the “those” moments reading it that made my day better. I can’t ask for anything more than that. I’m grateful Dave asked me to read his book, it’s let me know for a little while at least, until the buzz wears odd, that I am not alone in this mess of being. Thank you David Blaine.

Opinion: Good Read

-reviewed by GJ


BUY THE BOOK HERE!
Print edition: $6.00
Perfect Bound | 56 pages
5.5″ (14cm) x 8.5″ (21.6cm)