Book Review Roundup: They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab

Welcome back, readers. Blogging has been light this month while I prepare my Two Natures galleys for submission to book review journals. If you are a reviewer and would like an advance reading copy (Kindle edition), email me.

I’ve read more good books this spring than I’ve had time to blog about individually, so in the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some roundups of books-in-brief, grouped around various themes.

If you want to scare your teenagers away from alcohol and drugs, Gil Fagiani’s new poetry collection Logos (Guernica Editions, 2016) and Eve Tushnet’s debut novel Amends (CreateSpace, 2015) present a brutally honest and unglamorous look at addiction and the difficulties of recovery. And they’re much funnier, and better-written, than any PSA.

Logos is a collection of persona poems set at a heroin treatment center of that name, in the South Bronx in the 1960s. It comes out of Fagiani’s own experience, first as an inpatient there, and later as a social worker at a Bronx psychiatric hospital and the director of a rehab center in Brooklyn. The desperation of addiction has a way of levelling distinctions between races, classes, and professional backgrounds. The first-person narrator of some of these poems, presumably a stand-in for the poet’s younger self, stepped off the privileged path of a military college cadet to do anti-poverty activism in Spanish Harlem, where he got caught up in the drug culture. But his delusional, hand-to-mouth life is no different from the teen prostitutes and con men who are rooting through the same garbage cans for the dregs of liquor bottles. In this poetry collection, Fagiani expresses gratitude for the program that turned his life around, while showing that its zero-tolerance methods condemned some other residents to fall back into deadly habits.

“Logos” is a traditional term for the Godhead in Christian theology, based on the description of Jesus as the divine Word in the Gospel of John. However, the only god in evidence for most of the poor souls in this treatment center is the director, nicknamed “The Great Him”, who justifies his humiliating punishment regime on the grounds that addicts are all manipulative, self-centered liars who need to be tough-loved into submission. As Fagiani notes in the introduction, Logos was a peer-led community inspired by Chuck Dederich’s Synanon, which used confrontational “encounter sessions” to “strip down a person’s defense mechanisms to uncover the real person.”

Tushnet’s Amends takes aim at this very notion that the self is some nugget of sincerity we can excavate from the dross of social performance, rather than something we construct–and reveal to ourselves–in the act of choosing which personae to perform. In troubling our moralistic judgments about surface and depth, and in the humane values underpinning her aphoristic wit, she shows herself to be an aesthetic heir to Oscar Wilde.

The premise of Amends is pure 21st-century but its concerns are as old as the Garden of Eden. A half-dozen alcoholics from all walks of life are selected for a reality-TV show set in a residential rehab clinic. When healing and repentance become co-opted into the postmodern performance of identity, is transformative grace still possible? Sometimes, incredibly, it is, but not always, and not in a fashion that anyone associated with the show could control or predict.

Tushnet, a popular blogger on Catholic sexual ethics, is (for the most part) an equal-opportunity satirist. The Christian doubletalk of crisis pregnancy centers, pretentious queer theater, and aging Young Turk neo-conservative columnists are all grist for her mill. Her indictment of our society is sharp, yet love can still break through our egotistic illusions, as in the poignant, redemptive “bromance” between Gair, a celibate gay Christian athlete, and Dylan, his straight frat-boy best friend, whose drunken antics become less adorable as he ages.

In my opinion, the only flaw in this hilarious and heartbreaking novel is the character Sharptooth, a whiny young woman who identifies as a wolf. She is depicted rather two-dimentionally with all of the insulting stereotypes typically leveled at fringe identities–basically, a phony who wants to call attention to herself because strange identities are trendy and allow you to win power struggles by calling the other person an oppressor. However, “otherkin” is a real identity category that some people sincerely believe applies to them, a fact that most of Tushnet’s readers probably don’t know. To me it seemed like “punching-down” humor to mock a group of people who rarely have any positive representation to counter this depiction. Whatever you think of otherkin, I felt some vicarious shame whenever she came onstage, because trauma survivors and genderqueer people are often silenced with the same caricature that we just want to be treated like special snowflakes. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book. Read it for the jokes, stay for the grace.

The Dark Door: C.M. Royer’s Spiritual Abuse Survivor Memoir

I owe Caleigh Royer a debt of gratitude because her blog inspired me to start studying Tarot last year. I found her online some years ago through one of the spiritual abuse survivor blogs for ex-fundamentalist Christians, probably No Longer Quivering or Love, Joy, Feminism. When I saw on her Facebook page that she was writing a memoir about her journey to independence, I eagerly pre-ordered the e-book of The Dark Door, and was not disappointed. In fact, though I thought I’d worked through most of those old memories of my oppressive upbringing, Royer’s sincere, vulnerable storytelling went straight to my heart and reminded me of the pain and fear of living with narcissistic parents.

Royer is only in her mid-20s but she is strong and wise beyond her years. The Dark Door recounts her break for independence at age 18 when she dared to fall in love with and marry a young man against her parents’ wishes, and her subsequent de-conversion from Christianity as she processed the ways that religion had been used to keep her under her abusive father’s thumb. Unlike some of the other bloggers in this genre, she did not become a rationalist or atheist, but instead is developing a personal spiritual practice based on psychic intuition, spirit guides, Tarot, and universal values of love and fairness.

What’s striking is how much our stories have in common, despite the different religious backgrounds. Abusive families are depressingly alike, regardless of ideology, and a dysfunctional religious community is just the family system writ large.

Caleigh grew up in a fundamentalist subculture where fathers had spiritual “headship” over their families. A girl could not spend time with, let alone date or marry, a boy unless her father gave permission. As the oldest daughter in a large family, she was pressed into the role of caretaker and disciplinarian for her siblings. It didn’t matter what her own dreams and interests were. Because of their patriarchal belief system, the church elders gave the family no support in dealing with her father’s violence and pornography addiction. Caleigh was required to submit to his will no matter what. When she fell in love with a young man from their church, she was in for the fight of her life–which she won, at the price of severing ties with her biological family. It didn’t seem that her father had any basis for objecting to her engagement to Phil; the man simply craved total control over his child’s life, which was threatened when she found another object for her affections. This reminded me of how it drove my bio mom completely mad when I found the man I would marry, and later when we planned to have a child. Narcissists hate competition.

After she and Phil succeeded in getting married, with his parents’ support, the honeymoon period was overshadowed by her chronic illness (eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia) and depression in the aftermath of trauma. She was insightful and brave enough to realize that she needed therapy to change the bad patterns she’d learned at home. Reading this part, I thought of the brilliant closing moments of the film The Graduate, where Elaine and Ben’s elation at pulling off their romantic escape from her mother turns to shell-shock and withdrawal from one another. Once the adrenaline rush of battle subsides, perhaps they start to doubt whether they can break their parents’ pattern and have a happy marriage, and the programmed guilt of filial disloyalty kicks in. All of this happened to me as a new bride.

I can also relate to the heartbreak of her realization that the religion that had sustained her in the depths of her abuse was no longer the right place for her to continue her healing. She went through guilt, bereavement, fear of the unknown, and fear of disappointing and losing her friends, but never stopped testing the evidence and logic for Bible-based Christianity as she’d always understood it. Ultimately she concluded that for her, the Christian God was too intertwined with the image of her earthly father and the male religious authorities who’d justified his abuse. That isn’t really my issue, but some of her other reasons completely hit home for me. Trauma healing for both of us has meant valuing ourselves and trusting our personal experience, which puts us in conflict with the authority-based, self-sacrificing worldview of historic Christianity.

“There was no place for a story that ends badly in Christianity,” Royer observes, recounting how her church small groups couldn’t handle her abuse narrative. It posed too much of a challenge to their sentimental ideal of family. After she de-converted, she felt relief that “I no longer felt any obligation to apologize for being angry. I could be angry at my parents and their abuse without being reminded to forgive ‘as God has forgiven you.’ I was free to take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions and I had no fear of offending an unseen God.”

A little further on in this account, she says that “To trust my gut was the least Christian thing I could do. I was told it was trusting myself instead of God.” One can certainly see how predators could deploy this doctrine to suppress their victims’ warning signals. In my progressive church culture, I haven’t found such a stark opposition between revealed and empirical knowledge, but to my mind we emphasize external political or charitable activities at the expense of teaching people to cultivate their spiritual discernment. Mystical intuition is not denigrated so much as neglected, and somewhat limited by what can be plausibly squared with the Bible. I’m with Caleigh when she says, “Reaching into Tarot has healed the distrust I had in myself.”

Royer is a young self-taught author whose style is simple and direct. The memoir had some recurring grammatical errors and typos, which one more round of copy-editing would have cured. But if this story resonates with you at all, you won’t mind the rough patches. Get yourself a copy today.

Trusting Tootle

2016-01-10 12.36.56

The Young Master, at age 3.75, is wild about robots and trains. Three times a day, he demands that I read him Robots, Robots Everywhere, a Little Golden Book about our transhumanist future. He has also discovered the Little Golden Books Classics set that someone gave us at his baby shower. Not a day goes by without us re-reading at least some pages of Tootle and Scuffy the Tugboat, both written in the 1940s by Gertrude Crampton and illustrated by Tibor Gergely.

It’s curious how some books acquire classic status, re-purchased by generations of parents and well-wishers, perhaps without much thought about the meaning of the story. Gergely’s charming artwork epitomizes mid-20th-century picture book design: the optimistic fascination with industrial machinery, somehow peacefully coexisting with lush pastoral scenes, the made and the built environments equally full of wonder and personal detail. Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain.

However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told. They remind me of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, like “The Fir-Tree” and “The Little Mermaid”, where a young dreamer is violently punished for aspiring to a different life. Scuffy, a toy boat, thinks he was “made for better things” than sailing in a child’s bathtub, so he floats away on the brook, down a large river, and is almost lost at sea before his owner coincidentally rescues him. His adventures, though sometimes scary, look thrilling, so it’s very disappointing to me that the story ends with him saying that the bathtub is where a tugboat belongs. He’s also as insufferable at the end as the beginning, bragging that he knows his place, with exactly the same tone and words that he used to describe his destiny as an explorer. Self-awareness is apparently not as important in this vision of child-rearing. Resist the hegemonic narrative, Scuffy!

Tootle fares even worse. He’s like the anti-Ferdinand the Bull. His story is, for me, an example of what’s wrong with traditional education and discipline practices, as well as a metaphor for how trauma hampers the inner child’s creativity. That’s a lot for one little engine to carry, I know, but bear with me.

Bill, the engineer-teacher at the Lower Trainswitch School, gives the baby locomotives a long list of rules to obey, without explanation, if they want to grow up to be big important trains. Obviously, we readers can understand why “Stopping for a Red Flag Waving” and “Staying on the Rails No Matter What” are safety measures for trains. The point is that the students aren’t given reasons, so they don’t learn how to interpret the rules when they conflict.

Tootle is kind of…special. Not to read these words too anachronistically, but his sound is described as “a gay little tootle” and the engineers call his behavior “queer”! He loves to go fast, but obeying the rules, not so much. He keeps breaking the most important one, by secretly running off the rails to race with a beautiful black horse, frolic in the buttercups, and make echoes in a rain barrel. When the engineers figure it out, they conspire with everyone in the town to hide in Tootle’s favorite meadow and wave red flags whenever he makes a move. Tootle is provoked to tears:

“Whenever I start, I have to stop. Why did I think this meadow was such a fine place? Why don’t I ever see a green flag?”

Just as the tears were ready to slide out of his boiler, Tootle happened to look back over his coal car. On the tracks stood Bill, and in his hand was a big green flag. “Oh!” said Tootle.

He puffed up to Bill and stopped.

“This is the place for me,” said Tootle. “There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks.”

Indoctrination complete.

I admit, when I’m wrestling the Young Master into his four layers of outdoor clothing for a 5-minute trip to school, and he hops away with his pants around his ankles because he saw a squirrel through the glass door, I sympathize with the impulse to train a child to stay on the rails. But good parenting requires more complex discernment than following a single rule without give-and-take or context. Focus and curiosity are both valuable traits that are sometimes at odds. Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy, as radical 100 years ago as it is today, was based on trusting the child to educate himself in a structured environment. The traditional method depicted in Tootle assumes that children’s undirected impulses are either irrelevant or rebellious.

The line in Tootle that makes tears slide out of my boiler is “Why did I think this meadow was such a fine place?” They have frightened and shamed him into turning against his own joy. As an abuse survivor, I know what that’s like. I know the disgust I feel at my own writing when some negative comment (“you can’t be a Christian and write about gay sex!”) sends me into a shame spiral. I know the burning embarrassment that I might have loved my characters too much, talked about that love too much, exposed myself as a weird and boring 12-year-old fangirl. Like Tootle’s teachers, my mother controlled me by training me to see danger where there was none. The red flags in my meadow are very old habits of staying safe by hiding what really mattered to me. Once they were essential defenses, now they’re just triggers that keep me from expressing my creative powers.

How do I handle re-reading these stories to Shane? I tell him, “Mommy doesn’t like the message of this story, so Mommy is going to make up her own ending. When you’re old enough to read, you can read the real thing and decide whether you agree with it.” And I wait for Mallory Ortberg to take them down in her Children’s Stories Made Horrific satire column. (Her version of The Runaway Bunny tells you all you need to know about my childhood.)

So run with the horses, kids. But look both ways before you cross the tracks.

Mommy says, “And then Tootle ran off to San Francisco where he could be himself! The end.”

Blow It Out Your Sinatra: Poems from Paul Fericano’s “The Hollywood Catechism”

The cover of Paul Fericano’s poetry collection The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press, 2015) shows a smoldering black-and-white movie still of Burt Lancaster as con-artist preacher Elmer Gantry, with his bedroom eyes and well-thumped Bible. This characteristically American blend of flim-flam, movie idols, and popular Christianity sets the tone of this entertaining and original book.

Many of these poems would be considered light verse, like the opening number, “The Actor’s Creed”:

…I believe in the Holy Spielberg,
the holy casting couch,
the communion of press agents,
the forgiveness of Sally Field,
the resurrection of my career,
and life everlasting without Tom Hanks.
Amen.

The real joke is how easily these wisecracks fall into the rhythm of familiar prayers that we repeat without much thought. We might as well be praying to Spielberg–he’s got more money than God, as they say. Like the characters in our childhood Bible stories, celebrities occupy a realm between reality and fantasy. Even when we lose faith in them, they retain some of their glamour, their power to make us nostalgic for the simple joys of worship.

This poignancy gives heft to the book’s most memorable poems, such as the tour de force “Howl of Lon Chaney, Jr.”, a take-off on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in honor of B-movie horror actor Larry Talbot, “the Wolf Man”. Fericano writes compassionately of the dark side of the Hollywood dream, the loneliness of addiction and lost popularity. Substituting “Universal Studios” for “Moloch” in Ginsberg’s version, the meaning is still the same:

Universal the slaughterhouse of essence! Universal the
flesh-grinding boneless junkyard and studio of
terror! Universal whose films are USDA graded!
Universal the meat cleaver of inspection! Universal
the concrete productions!

Universal whose checkbook is bottom line! Universal whose
life is zombie profit! Universal whose thoughts
are small implosions! Universal whose head is a cannabis
fire pit! Universal whose heart is a ticking bomb!

The nyuk-nyuk’s don’t stop with his author bio: “Since 1971 his poetry and prose have appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in various underground and above-ground literary and media outlets… Loading the Revolver with Real Bullets (Second Coming Press, 1977), a collection of his work partly funded by the state of California, achieved notoriety in 1978, when one of its poems, ‘The Three Stooges at a Hollywood Party’, was read on the floor of the California State Senate as a reason to abolish the California Arts Council.”

On a more serious note, Paul is also the director of Instruments of Peace/SafeNet, a nonprofit reconciliation group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Visit his blog, A Room with a Pew, to learn about his latest efforts to help victims obtain restitution from the Catholic Church.

Enjoy the poems below, which he has kindly given me permission to reprint.

 

The Three Stooges Meet Charles Bukowski In Heaven

The day is like any other day in Paradise
where angels hang out on street corners in between gigs

smoking filtered cigarettes drinking ginger ale
and swapping stories about the Son of Man.

Everyone has an eye fixed on Jesus.
He’s on his knees in an alley shooting dice

with the Three Stooges
and the poor bastards are losing their shirts.

The Savior of the World is on fire.
In flowing red robe he rattles the bones in his hand

brings them to his ear shakes them like the Second Coming
and blows on them once for luck.

He arcs his fist before release and shouts:
Baby needs a new pair of shoes!

then tosses them with the same force his father summoned
to create the Milky Way.

When he flashes that wide resurrection smile
the one he showed the Romans right before they nailed him,

he scoops up his winnings with a wink and a nod
and everyone knows the Lamb of God is on a roll.

The Stooges are victims of divine intervention.
They make the sign of the cross and Jesus smiles.

I like you guys, he says, slapping their faces affectionately.
And just like that three morons become saints.

Leaning against a wall drinking beer from a bottle
always cold never empty is Charles Bukowski.

He shifts his weight like a man itching to start something
eyeing the action as if he’s writing his last poem.

Jesus stands now and introduces them.
The Stooges pull back unsure of what to expect from a guy

who once threw up on Norman Mailer and just last week
tried to look up the Virgin Mary’s dress.

Bukowski hesitates, too. He remembers almost losing an eye
in a pie fight and watches their fingers closely now

the air so choked with mistrust even the Holy Ghost is scared.
That’s when Jesus stands on his head.

It’s a minor miracle, not like changing a Beatles’ song
into a jingle for running shoes, but it breaks the tension at last.

Sighs of relief rise up like hosannas and everyone laughs,
especially the Son of God who isn’t wearing underpants.

****
Sinatra, Sinatra

Sexual reference:
A protruding sinatra
is often laughed at by serious women.

Medical procedure:
A malignant sinatra
must be cut out by a skilled surgeon.

Violent persuasion:
A sawed-off sinatra
is a dangerous weapon at close range.

Congressional question:
Do you deny the charge of ever being
involved in organized sinatra?

Prepared statement:
Kiss my sinatra.
Blow it out your sinatra.

Financial question:
Will supply-side sinatra halt inflation?

Empty expression:
The sinatra stops here.
The sinatra is quicker than the eye.

Strategic question:
Do you think it’s possible to win
a limited nuclear sinatra?

Stupid assertion:
Eat sinatra.
Hail Mary full of sinatra.

Serious reflection:
Sinatra this, sinatra that.
Sinatra do, sinatra don’t.
Sinatra come, sinatra go.
There’s no sinatra like show sinatra.

Historical question:
Is the poet who wrote this poem still alive?

Biblical fact:
Man does not live by sinatra alone.

“For Your Own Good”: Leah Horlick’s Tarot-Inspired Poetry of Survival

I discovered Canadian poet Leah Horlick via an interview at Little Red Tarot, an excellent blog with an interest in queer and feminist interpretations of the cards. Horlick’s breathtaking second full-length collection, For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press, 2015), breaks the silence around intimate partner violence in same-sex relationships. Jewish tradition, nature spirituality, and archetypes from Tarot cards build a framework for healing. This book is valuable for its specificity about the dynamics of abusive lesbian partnerships, which may not fit our popular culture’s image of domestic violence. Horlick shows how the closet and the invisibility of non-physical abuse make it difficult for these victims to name what is happening to them. The book’s narrative arc is hopeful and empowering.

I recognize pieces of my family’s story in many books about abuse, but I usually have to do some mental editing and transposition. Not to discount the importance of second-wave feminism in broaching this taboo subject, but the classic texts universalize a male-against-female model of abuse that erases the distinct dynamics of female perpetration. Engulfment and gaslighting play a larger role; it’s more like being smothered by a fog, than invaded by a clearly separate attacker.  For Your Own Good made me feel seen and heard. I wonder if the title is a nod to the book of the same name by Alice Miller, one of the few feminist writers of her generation who didn’t impose a moralistic gender binary on trauma.

Compulsory heterosexuality (to use Adrienne Rich’s term) is a force multiplier for dysfunction in lesbian relationships, such as my parents’. It’s hard to recognize that your relationship is abusive when no one will confirm that it even exists. Horlick identifies this double silencing, so familiar from my childhood, in “The Disappearing Woman”:

…She doesn’t give you black eyes, and
the doctors do not see her, not in your

long hair, your good earrings, in your quiet
descriptions of pain. They would say

boyfriend. They would see husband. She
does not give you black eyes,

she is not your husband, and you do not
say anything.

In the Collective Tarot, an LGBT-themed deck that Horlick used for inspiration, the suit of Swords is called “Suit of Feathers”. Swords correspond to intellect, the element of air, and the cards in this suit have more scenes of pain and conflict than the other three. When Sword cards come up for me in a reading, it often symbolizes working with trauma memories or intellectual defenses. The multi-part poem “Suit of Feathers” in For Your Own Good depicts moments of piercing insight that motivate the narrator to leave her abuser. I pictured “suit” also as a garment made of feathers, a disguise that a fairy-tale heroine would wear to escape from a wicked stepmother or incestuous father (as in Perrault’s “Donkey-skin”). Anne Sexton’s Freudian fairy-tale poems in Transformations are part of this book’s ancestry.

Andrea Routley at Caitlin Press has kindly given me permission to reprint the book’s closing poem, “Anniversary”, below. It could be describing me today, word-for-word. (Leah and Andrea, I apologize that this blog template strips out the indents in the second line of each couplet.)

Follow the author on Twitter at @LeahHorlick, and read more excerpts from For Your Own Good in these online publications:

“The Tower”, “Little Voice”, and “Liberation”: Canadian Poetries
“Starfish” (with audio): The Bakery Poetry
“Amygdala” (with audio): The Bakery Poetry
“Bruises”: The Collagist
Video of her reading on YouTube

Anniversary

It has taken five years and fifteen hundred
kilometres to get away, and closer

to the mountains. I can see them–
every day, like I always wanted. Near,

and distant. Every day I can ask people
not to touch me–

on the bus, on the beach, or in my new kitchen.
Or I could ask them to–

which, lately, is harder. How can it still
feel so soon? She has never been

near this new body of mine–
short-haired, tattooed, very strong

and very, very fast, now. I carry a chunk of rose
quartz the size of my thumb for safety.

I have sworn to myself a life of people
who know when to stop. I promised–

and spent my first night in the new apartment drawing
circles in salt and rain, whispering

to my old self, come here. I built this
for you. I promised.

Two Poems from Mary A. Koncel’s “Closer to Day”

The prose poem is the perfect form for surreal vignettes that combine the tell-it-slant quality of poetry with the relaxed unfolding of a prose line. As in fables, the first sentences establish mysterious happenings as the new normal. There is no time for technical explanations of this strange world that waits inside our own. Mary A. Koncel’s assured voice convinces us that we live in a place where farmers burst into flames, lusty women smell men’s ripeness in the air, and horses wait prayerfully for their owners to fall back in love.

Koncel’s debut chapbook of prose poems, Closer to Day, was published in 1999 by Quale Press, one of the numerous small presses that enrich our Western Massachusetts culture. The editors have kindly given me permission to share the work below. For more of her work, check out her 2003 full-length collection from Tupelo Press, You Can Tell the Horse Anything.

The Neighborhood Man

A dog is rolling in the grass. A man walks by and thinks the dog is drowning. But the man’s not sure because he’s just a neighbor. The dog is very convincing, turning over and over, its long legs kicking up clumps of grass. The man strips off his suit, drops to his knees, and rolls in after the dog. He hopes the dog can hold on just a while longer.

The man is having problems. He’s getting very tired, barely able to keep his head above the grass. It’s very late. He hopes this will be over soon. But the dog is getting smaller, the grass much deeper.

****

Bless This Night

It’s almost like heaven out here. Ten miles of angel-pin turns, glittering blacktop, then a pair of straight yellow lines leading right to sweet soul of opossum, twin spirits of skunks.

Driving home, I think about Saint Francis, imagine him wandering through the woods, a flock of swallows buzzing his left eardrum, a raccoon or two draped over his shoulders like a favorite cardigan. A tall, awkward man, he had hands with white palms and strong straight fingers.

Out here, under these brooding stars and stark moon, animals are just as abundant. Cut loose from fur and body, they languish along the road: rabbits begin to hurry but stop in mid-air, a fox sniffs its blood, surprised by its cold, exquisite beauty, while tree frogs swallow deep, vaguely tasting the last sounds in their throats.

“Keep still,” Saint Francis would warn if he walked among these animals. “Keep still.” One hand pressed against his lips, the other held in blessing, he would stop at each one that raised its head and wanted more.

I could stop. I could stop, drop to my knees, and hold out my hands like Saint Francis, tell these animals that they have been good, good and wild. It’s time to surrender their hearts to me, their long and mournful howls, their hunger. Bless this night, bless this road and all that makes it heaven.

 

Two Poems from Arthur Powers’s “Edgewater”

Award-winning poet and fiction writer Arthur Powers’s work is informed by his Catholic faith and his concern for the dignity of the common man and woman. His profound short fiction collection, A Hero for the People (Press 53, 2013), drew on his activist work on behalf of subsistence farmers and workers in rural Brazil. I was pleased to blurb his poetry chapbook, Edgewater, just out from Finishing Line Press. This collection of vernacular sonnets takes us into the American heartland past and present, finding the sacramental quality in modest gestures such as a pioneer’s gift of roses for his work-worn wife, or a puddle in an urban snowbank that reminds an immigrant of the idyllic lakes of his lost homeland. Arthur has kindly shared two poems from Edgewater below.

Nauvoo To Bishop Hill

(Summer/1977)

From Nauvoo up to Knoxville, winding
the Mississippi’s green hills hot in
summer, the locusts singing alive
the Illinois sun, we moved slowly,
following curving gray roads that led

through myths of our imagination.
At Knoxville, where the old college stands,
a gray stone soldier guarding
a century, we stopped a moment
in the shade, then on to Galesburg,

the brick heat and sun bright factories,
the railroad switches, the neat white box
of Carl Sandburg’s home, the quick, cheap
restaurant that serves pancakes in his
memory. And so to Bishop Hill.

The green square caught in antique trees
and cubic buildings like children’s blocks
placed neatly around it, strong clean Swedes
working together to carve a dream
out of the midlands of America:

the heat, the locusts, the sharp white sun,
the silence of the dream emptied out
onto the prairie: nothing, nothing
is left, O Illinois, but locusts
singing alive tight summer sun.

****

Sunday Afternoon/Missouri

I met a girl from Hannibal. She said:

“The house where I grew up was built by slaves,
of brick and tall wood, and it seemed the seasons
were woven into the wood. In October,
when we stood in the high ceiling’d rooms
and looked out over the fields, black after
harvest, the leaves on the trees gleamed red.
Then, when the season turned and in the dead
of winter the corn stubs stood like graves
in rows, the wind would blow the leaves away.

The house stood white and naked when it snowed.
They tore it down to build a road.”

We walked along the riverfront. She said:

“Here, in town, there used to be a park
where we’d go to watch the river, slow
and brown, and the stark fields
of Illinois across the river. They
built a grain elevator that blocked
the view.”
Yes, that too, I said.
And a car door slamming shut on a
quiet Sunday.
And Mark Twain dead.

Chapbook Spotlight: Two Poems from Ruth Thompson’s “Crazing”

Contemporary poet Ruth Thompson inspires me with her vision of mature womanhood and life in harmony with nature. I reviewed her previous full-length collection, Woman With Crows, on the blog last year.

The mature and courageous poems in her latest chapbook, Crazing (Saddle Road Press, 2015), teach us to discern the difference between natural and unnatural change. She responds with extraordinary grace and playfulness to the scattering of her mental and physical abilities in old age, the “crazing” of the glaze that gives the vessel its character, the cracks in the body’s shell from which the spirit emerges like a baby chick. At the same time, her embrace of the cycles of nature empassions her to resist alterations that are sudden, irreversible, and a dead end for life on this planet. She mourns not for herself but for lost tree species, droughts, and future generations who may “die thirsty, telling stories of our green shade.” Her acceptance of her personal body’s limitations shows us a humbler, more sustainable way to inhabit the body of Mother Earth.

She has kindly permitted me to share two poems from the chapbook below. (Full disclosure: Ruth previously blurbed my new collection, Bullies in Love.)

Mary Speaks

How relieved I was when it was over.
How easily I vanished from the story.

When it was finished, given over to their
busy hands, I slipped away like a fish.

I bundled myself back on the donkey,
unwound the old stars to show the way.

In the dark of the moon I came home.

Now I pour silica over my shoulders.
In both my palms I feel the shift.

Some men thank the god for dying
and the Mother who made him,

but these men will have no Mother.
No matter. The boy is dead.

Far away the rains begin.
First flood, then riversilt: his flesh.

Body sloughs like a stalk of wheat
lays another spiral in the grain.

Here at the bony heart of things,
I dance the red sun up over the hills.

****

Losing the Words

Wantons, they’d give themselves to anyone!

See how they slip in and out of one another’s clothes?

See how–dressed in zinnia-colored feathers, giggling–
they settle to the lip like birds, then flicker away?

Oh, they hide behind the roof of my mouth with flashlights,
cast firefly shadows on my stuttering tongue–

dash onto the stage and off, grinning madly–
above them that terrible sign: Exeunt Omnes.

For one day all of them–
all the thousand thousand names of God–

will fall in love. Conjoin. Merge
into the unkempt darkness behind the stars.

They will be gone forever. Then silence
will enter the echoing chambers of my mind.

It will speak its name at last.
I will say Yes.

Chapbook Spotlight: Two Poems from Lisken Van Pelt Dus’s “Everywhere at Once”

Lisken Van Pelt Dus is a poet, teacher, and martial artist, raised in England, the US, and Mexico, and now living in Massachusetts. Her work can be found in such journals as Conduit, The South Carolina Review, Qarrtsiluni, and Upstreet, and has earned awards and honors from The Comstock Review, The Atlanta Review, and Cider Press Review. Her chapbook, Everywhere at Once, was published by Pudding House Press in 2009, and her first full-length book, What We’re Made Of, is due out from WordTech Communications’ Cherry Grove imprint in May 2016.

I had the pleasure of reading with Lisken at a local poetry event several years ago (we think it was Upstreet Magazine in Pittsfield, but we’re not sure!) where I purchased the above-mentioned chapbook. Recurring images of birds and mountaintops give this collection its uplifting, spacious, graceful character. Like a rushing wind or forest stream, human life is constantly in motion, swept along and altered by the passage of time. “It’s only/January but already birds are practicing song.” The poet’s mission, and her gift to us, is to pull over her bike in the field, or pause at the summit, so that we notice our place on the cosmic wheel and experience a moment of gratitude.

The chapbook is unfortunately out of print, but some of its poems will be included in her forthcoming book, including the two below, which she has kindly allowed me to republish here.

Becoming Double

A number of us had gathered
in the curious way the world has
of gathering people, a random
rightness hovering, and then

what we all hoped for
though we could not name it,
sunshine in the dry altitude,
and conversation, and silence
resonant with a depth that made us
listen as if to reach the bottom of it.

At night the moon
scoured the hills and terraces.
Day warmed slowly. We followed
goat tracks up until we reached
a spring, its drinking trough filthy
with horseshit and roiled mud.
We stopped to watch a kestrel dive,
traded stares and greetings
with leathery goat-drivers on horseback,
scaled rocks like steps
to the top of the dusty hill-side.

One hill rose higher still.
The sign said Propiedad Privada but
the barbed wire was mostly trampled
horizontal. This was open land.
We walked into the sky.

This much is accurate.
What happened next
cannot be described so simply.
I too would have thought it impossible:
we reached the top but kept walking,
higher, as if we could fly by striding.
The hill that had seemed so tall
dropped away from us, flap
of wind-whipped ribbons
on huge crosses falling inaudible,
goat-bells paling. I saw
the wind itself rise to lift us.
In the distance the town grew smaller.

To this day I don’t know
how we returned or even if
we came back to the same land
we had left. Dust still clings
to my boots and hawks
still call sharply at the sight of prey.
The sun rises each morning
and the moon cycles.
A number of us depart
and reunite. Two are me.

****

Flight of Starlings

From the bay window in our living room
it looks like dozens of starlings
have just flown into your workshop below me,

dive-bombers launched from the trees
to the snow-free ground under our eaves.
I imagine them in there, winging

among the tools, perched on the table saw
or pecking at jars of screws and wall plugs.
One loses a feather. When you come home

you’ll find a filigree of spindly footprints
in the sawdust, and the black iridescence
of the bird’s absence. It is something

utterly other, this feather, this bird.
It’s from another place, a place we
can’t get to–it can’t happen

any more than we can go back
to a time before loss. But somewhere
a bird is balancing effortlessly on a branch

or in the air, without that feather.

Chapbook Spotlight: Poetry from Catherine Sasanov’s “Tara”

In Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, “Tara” was Scarlett O’Hara’s family plantation, a symbol of the supposedly idyllic (for white people) Southern way of life before the Civil War. The poet Catherine Sasanov references this pro-slavery myth ironically, tragically, in the title of her chapbook Tara (Cervena Barva Press, 2008), not as a vanished Eden but as confession of white America’s original sin.

This exquisite, penitent chapbook unearths lives overlooked by official histories. Upon discovering that her Missouri forebears had owned slaves, the poet undertook the task of reconstructing the latter’s stories from the scraps of information in local records. The incompleteness of the narrative stands as an indictment of white America’s lack of care for black lives. Suburban development appears as the latest form of erasure of the graves on which civilization is built.

Most of the poems in Tara are also included in Sasanov’s subsequent full-length collection Had Slaves, which won the Sentence Book Award from Firewheel Editions and was published by Firewheel in 2010. Thanks to both publishers and the author for permission to reprint the poem below.

On Reading the Missouri Slave Narratives Collected by the Federal Writers Project

(for Elizabeth Herndon Sharp, 1839-1945)

Missouri, 1937. The year white folks armed
with pens, with paper,
come to excavate memory’s shallow grave. Get paid to sift the slavery from it.

Before the old mouths die out around their stories. So they can lay their words out to dry.
So fresh, the spit still shines on them. Light cuts and bruises insisting how
Black thought exits through the teeth–

Eye dialect, written by men, by women, who never read the Braille
whipped into an ex-slave’s back. Look at the way each word is strained
through the minstrel show in their heads: Honey,

mama’s gwan way off, ain’t never goin to see her baby agin.

They ask about belief in ghosts, get scared when surface
wanders towards them white: black girls perfect as a glass of milk
whole towns choose to hold upright, so the one drop theory won’t spill out.

In spite of dust storms, failed banks, plagues of locusts,
did the called-to-ask give thanks to Jesus for a present as perfect as this Great Depression
to make our past look good? In Missouri,

1937, they invite themselves onto 92 porches, eke child slaves out
of 80-year-old women, 90-year-old men. Pens poised for the moments
dripping with nostalgia. Pages buckling beneath the weight:

Ole Mistress, slopping children’s meals in a pig trough.

Old Master, dragging a sick man from his cabin,
throwing him living in his grave:
We’ll come back in about an hour, he should be dead by then.

(What children see while running errands.
What children wrest from beneath their eyelids
so they can drop to their knees and eat.)

Bloody footprints across the floorboards.

A toddler crawling into her mother’s coffin, Look at my pretty dress.

How close can I lean in and listen
70 years away from voices
bound into a book? Where my family’s slaves died out

outside its pages. Where no one came to slide a sheet of paper
underneath their words. In Missouri, 1937,
my father’s tucked into its southwest corner,

lives on a campus called the forty acres. He learns to think
he’s years, not blocks, away
from the last slave linked

to his family. She’ll wait till 1945,
while no one tries
to take down her story.

I’ve touched the edges of her unmarked grave,
beat my hands against its dirt and howled.
But why should she get up, answer now

this trace of slaveholder
in my blood: distinct though distant,
watered down. What runs this pack of words across

the thin ice of the page.