Two Poems from Joshua Michael Stewart’s “Break Every String”

Western Massachusetts poet Joshua Michael Stewart came to my attention through Straw Dog Writers Guild, where he’s a popular frequent reader at open mics and literary events. (Take advantage of the Zoom era and drop in on their upcoming readings!) As a Buddhist, Joshua is modest about his literary reputation, but I, for one, want him to be famous, because the guy has a helluva voice.

I recently finished his 2016 collection from Levellers Press, Break Every String. This lyrical autobiography is a blues song for the dead-end economy of Midwestern towns and the family wreckage they harbor. His characters crackle with energy that could find its outlet in verses or fists, parenting your own children or stealing someone else’s, a guitar or a bottle. Stewart writes of his teen years: “I was nabbed for keeping up the family business–shoving merchandise down my pants.” As the one who escaped, Stewart plays through all the octaves of emotion, from gratitude to judgmental pride, to survivor guilt, to wary compassion: “of loving/the lost with raucous praise, of letting the gone go.”

Several poems are titled “After Ohio”, each beginning with an excerpt from a letter from his mother, who is usually updating him on his ex-con brother’s bumpy road in and out of sobriety. In one of these pieces, Stewart begins, with his characteristic deadpan humor: “When scoring a revolver from a guy/who lives out of his car, you don’t plan/much of anything else for that day.” The poem recounts how he wandered into a bookstore and bought a book of poetry when the guy didn’t show up. The tipping point between his fate and his brother’s could be just that random and precarious. I found myself thinking of the ending of the film Angels with Dirty Faces: “let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”

Joshua has kindly given me permission to reprint the poems below. He’s just finished a new manuscript–I hope it gets published soon!

NEVER ASK WHAT’S UNDER THE BED

Your grandfather once shot a man,
my mother says over pea soup on the porch—
chucked his sorry ass down a well,
kept the man’s false teeth as a souvenir.
Take that to your fancy school
for when you forget who you are.
The jobs have ditched town, and the freight
trains are gone—no longer rattling
windows, shaking nails from rotten studs.
The house shivers on its own.
We move out to the yard, squat down
on five-gallon buckets and scavenge fallen
pears among dandelions and bluegrass,
my favorite AC/DC T-shirt and my woodshop award
stuffed in a cardboard suitcase at my feet.
My generation, we didn’t have learning
disabilities, we just drank homebrew,
and threw knives at each other.
Sweetness drips off her chin,
her mouth a honeycomb of bees.

****

MOTHER, THESE AREN’T YOUR FLOWERS

I thrust open a stubborn window,
causing a book to plop on its side,
slide off the shelf and, washed over

by a wave of other books, crash
into a rose-filled vase that smacks
on the hardwood floor.

What follows is silence, the split
second after a mother slaps
her child. I’ll let the water search

the valleys of the room, finger
the petal-thorns and prism-shards.
This isn’t your carpet ruined

by spilt paint. You will not lean
in the doorway smelling of strawberries
and righteousness. No wailing

or pleading here, only the quiet
twinge of panic ingrained
by the memory of your nearness.

Lesléa Newman’s “I Wish My Father” Is a Tragicomic Elegy

Shepherding an elderly parent through illness and death is a stark, unglamorous journey that demands clear vision and directness, and (especially if you’re a Jewish New Yorker) a fair amount of gallows humor. These qualities abound in Lesléa Newman’s latest poetry collection, I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, 2021).

Dedicated to Edward Newman (1927-2017), a dapper and hardworking New York attorney, this sequence of narrative poems cycles repeatedly through grief, frustration, and absurd humor, as his adult daughter endeavors to preserve his dignity and safety (not always compatible goals) while his grasp of reality weakens. There’s a certain kind of Jewish couple for whom bickering is a love language. One gets the sense that Newman’s late parents often communicated in this register, which makes her widowed father’s moments of romantic sorrow all the more poignant.

The collection is unified not only by the storyline but also by a formal similarity among the poems. Each poem’s title serves as the first phrase of a sentence that continues as a sequence of three-line stanzas. This device, never obtrusive, reinforces the feeling of sameness that must have burdened her father’s days once his mainstays of work and marriage were torn away. And yet there is change, painfully perceptible to his daughter if not to him.

…He looks towards
my mother’s chair, and out of nowhere
I hear her, too, her voice the weak whisper

of that terrible last day. Don’t worry,
sweetheart. She cupped my cheek
with her worn, withered hand.

There’s no problem so terrible
that it can’t get worse.

Now, that puts the “dead” in deadpan humor. Look how deftly the anecdote is saved from sentimentality by an unpredictable bit of very Jewish wisdom that is both optimistic and so pessimistic we can hardly stand it. As Leonard Cohen sang, You want it darker…

Faith is more than a cultural style here, though. Mr. Newman seems largely contented by his delusions–or are they visions?–of mysterious children at his bedside and random dead people from his past. Together they observe Yom Kippur in a nontraditional way that still brings his daughter closer to the mysteries of time, repentance, and forgiveness. And when he is released from his earthly life, she narrates his arrival at her mother’s side in the World to Come, in exactly the same factual voice as the preceding poems.

I appreciate how this book is accessible to readers without a background in poetry, while also revealing depths to an experienced writer and reader. Even the Young Master took an interest when he saw the book cover, asking me “What does that mean? I wish my father what?” I read him the title poem, about Lesléa’s father tallying the events of his life at age 90, and then asked Shane, “What do you think she wishes for her father?” His suggestions:

I wish my father was still alive.
I wish my father had a good life.
I wish my father knows he was the best.

I Wish My Father by Leslea Newman

Click the cover image to be taken to the book purchasing website. Lesléa has kindly permitted me to reprint the poem below.

MY FATHER WAS NEVER

on time once in his entire life.
No, we could always count
on him being a good 20 minutes

early. I remember many a Saturday
night with my dad dressed
to the nines in his sleek black tux

and glittering diamond studs
pacing the hallway from front
door to kitchen to dining room

before ordering me to dash
upstairs and see what was taking
my impossible mother so goddamn

long. I’d find her sitting side saddle
on a stool in a white silk slip
surrounded by crumpled tissues

imprinted with lip prints
of lipstck the color of apples,
clasping a sparkling bracelet

around her wrist, clipping
on a pair of matching earrings
and muttering to herself in the bedroom

mirror. “I know the early bird catches
the worm. But who the hell
wants a goddamn worm?” She’d hand

me a pendant shaped like a tear
to fasten around her neck,
then raise a silver aerosol can

the hairspray hissing like a snake
as she circled her head three times
forcing me to step back from the cloud

that always made me cough. Once
I came home from college
for Thanksgiving and my dad

drove me to the airport for my return
flight on a snowy Sunday afternoon.
Somehow my stuffed-to-the-gills suitcase

never made it out to the car.
After a ton of yelling and screaming
and carrying on, my father drove

us home and drove us back
to the airport and I was still
an hour early for my flight.

It made me laugh when my father
proudly showed me a note
he received after my mother died:

Dear Mr. Newman,
Thank you for coming to my Bar Mitzvah.
You were the first one there.

I wonder just how early he was
and how on earth he would feel
to learn that from this day forth

for all time he will always
and forever be known
as the late Mr. Newman.

 

© 2021 Lesléa Newman from I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA). Used by permission of the author.

Two Poems from Phyllis Klein’s “The Full Moon Herald”

In the most frequently quoted lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, William Carlos Williams wrote that “it is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” What is found in Phyllis Klein’s new poetry collection The Full Moon Herald (Grayson Books, 2020) is an unflinching and compassionate witness to the news of the day and the historical traumas that birthed it.

Cleverly organized in sections titled like the features of a newspaper–International News, Health, Crime, Arts & Entertainment, and so forth–the collection responds to timely topics such as wildfires and droughts, the refugee crisis, sexual violence, and even the coronavirus. Several poems reference the Holocaust, a visceral part of Klein’s ancestral legacy as a Jew, and how the memory of this event both compels her to write about other genocides and sometimes threatens her with despair. Human interest stories provide fleeting moments of hope, such as in “Paul Barton Plays Piano for Elephants”, yet even there, Klein refuses to look away from details that complicate the sentimental picture: “Even if they/knew where the piano once got its keys, what would/they do?”

On August 22 at 4 PM Pacific/7 PM Eastern time, Klein will be participating in a Zoom poetry reading with J. David Cummings and Christine Holland Cummings titled “Staying With the Trouble: Poems of trauma, grief and hope in an age of disaster”. RSVP to phyllis@phyllisklein.com for the link. Visit her website to learn more about her work as a writer and trauma therapist.

She kindly shares two poems from the book below. Jeni Haynes, referenced in the second poem, is an Australian child abuse survivor who developed 2,500 personality alters. Hers is believed to be the first case in Australia, and possibly the world, where a victim has testified in their alternate personalities and secured a conviction, according to this BBC Australia article.

The Human Tragedy

Dandelions… kept alive by the finest gardeners
in the world who knew how to work against nature.
—Jack Gilbert, “The Difficult Beauty”

You can only avoid it for so long. Like reading a story set in
pre-war France knowing something terrible will happen to
the lovely Jewish characters. Why do you read it? When you

started it was a happy story. Good fortune draws you in.
Love starts off loudly, calling with the ecstasy of a requiem,
only you don’t want to realize the beauty leads to the grief

until it happens. More and more of this these days. More of the people
gathering, the bombs gushing off, the dead and the survivors.
No need to explain what fear feels like. It’s in you, it’s sitting beside

you. It’s in the backs of the gardeners as they bend over
the plain yellow flowers weeding out everything else that wants to grow.

****

She Was Alone

for Jeni Haynes

She was alone like an iceberg, but not too frozen
for her father to hurt. He assaulted her at age four almost
breaking her. Her body, a crime scene. Her mind, a disjunction.

Every day of her childhood. We know about it now because
she went to court. She was alone like a volcano on a fault
line, sitting there facing him, barbarian in a chair. Enjoying

her affliction. A gargoyle. He’s going to prison now. She did
the impossible. Didn’t erupt or sink him with an icy gash to his side.
Didn’t smack him in the face. Found a detective who believed her.

A detective who can cry. She made an army, a republic of her, to stay real
while her criminal father tortured her. There are Muscles and Erik
in charge, but it’s a democracy, a nation of her. Alters, fragments, back

room boiler boys and girls and notgirls. Voting on every single
important issue. Symphony testified first. Still four years
old. Remembering everything in detail. She was alone like

a seed planted in a vast empty desert. Until the others,
so many she would never be alone again, surrounded
by their palm fronds, cassia bushes, cactus guards, soothing aloe veras.

Her body a crime scene, what he did to her, how she paid with her organs
in ruins, no babies ever for her. He is going to prison for a long
time, her father. And everyone will know what he did.

How he violated her territory. He told her she was ugly, every
day he tried to ruin her. Tried but couldn’t. He was a giant next to her
meager body. Bathroom tormenter. How she fought him, her beautiful

enduring, backboned, spirit. What he would never see on her cold
wounded skin. Excellent, breathtaking, outstanding beauty, had to go
under cover, beneath her waterline to the vast hidden underside.

Residence of power. She opened the door for other split
people to have their days in court. We bow to her, association of Jeni,
society, territory, unionized, incorporated, ablaze.

Chapbook Reviews in Brief: Holmes, Lisowski, and More

Have you ever entered a contest you didn’t win, received the winning book from the sponsor, and said to yourself, “Yeah, they’re right, I have to up my game”? That’s how I feel about Dead Year by Anne Cecelia Holmes, which was my reward for entering the Sixth Finch poetry chapbook prize. (Dead Year was published in 2016, so technically we weren’t competing head-to-head; grab your copy before it goes out of print, since it’s not listed on Amazon and the “excerpt” link goes to an error page.)

Every poem in this chapbook is also titled “Dead Year”, demonstrating how grief seems to stop time, trapping you in endless ruminations or numbness. This is confessional poetry without a confession: the trauma that has unmade the speaker is never specified. Early on, perhaps reading myself into the text, I thought of infertility or miscarriage (“Unbelievable how we stretch/in our skin day after day.//How I never say when I am/a mother into the mirror”).

However, the point of the book is not literal autobiography, which would enable us to distance ourselves from the agony by pretending it doesn’t apply to us. Holmes aims to dissect the process of unbecoming and remaking the self after any event that calls into question our whole way of living as a body among bodies–specifically, as a woman:

Since I am female

I am like a pet
and try to swallow a man.

Perhaps this makes me
a villain but think of it

more an act of devotion.

But this is not, after all, merely a story of stagnation. The speaker’s immobility, her refusal to be prematurely reassembled into legible personhood, reveals itself as an act of furious resistance that burns brighter as the book progresses. (“Okay/hurricane, make me/a skinless girl…/I shape my mouth/into a poison halo/and rain.”) The later poems more directly address a “you” who (we infer) is somehow culpable for the indescribable event. In the last poem, this anger seems to be propelling the speaker up and out of her sojourn in the underworld.

It is the end. I hope
you know that.

When I stick my
full self inside

the year nothing
but my fire ring

blasts through.

It takes chutzpah to dedicate a poetry chapbook about Lizzie Borden to your father. Zefyr Lisowski went all-in with Blood Box (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), her unsettling re-creation of the much-debated murders of Lizzie’s father and stepmother. The family home becomes a cursed jewel that the poet holds up to the light, examining each facet through different characters’ perspectives, but finding only distortions and sharp edges. It’s a claustrophobic setting worthy of Shirley Jackson, where the menacing tension mounts but is never resolved by exposure of its true source. Lisowski is less interested in solving the mystery (the book is bracketed by the poems “If I Did” and “If I Didn’t”) than in limning the many influences that press down on the characters like a coffin lid in Mr. Borden’s funeral home. As Lizzie’s sister Emma says bitterly, “I’m in constant//pain. The minister says, ‘God is all around us.’/Tell me. Who could require more proof than that.”

We subscribe to the monthly mini-magazine True Story from the journal Creative Nonfiction, and if you’re an aspiring essayist, I recommend that you do too. Each chapbook-sized issue features one narrative essay, fact-checked by the editors. The pieces generally braid autobiographical reflections with larger cultural themes and a thumbnail history of a special topic suggested by the personal anecdote. This format would scale up quite well to a book-length memoir: a subscription to True Story gives you a useful series of case studies in nonfiction narrative structure.

Some of my favorite recent entries in the series:

Heather Sellers, Where Am I? (Issue 27) draws connections between her face blindness, “place blindness” (difficulty navigating even familiar locations), and growing up with a mentally ill mother. I saw so much of myself in this essay. It was validating to see common patterns and have a role model for struggles that my mother and I both faced. (My mother would need help getting back from the restroom to our table in a restaurant we visited every month, and the last time she drove a car was the day she got her license, sometime during the Nixon administration!)

Renata Golden, Bought and Sold (Issue 30) is subtitled “A history of lies and broken promises”, as exemplified by the boondoggle housing subdivision in the New Mexico desert that her father bought into in the 1960s. She describes how the US government, real estate speculators, and railroad companies wrested Western lands from Mexicans and Native Americans, then cheated working-class Americans with promises of cheap “uninhabited” land. This chapbook would be a good addition to a high school American history curriculum.

Ander Monson, My Monument (Issue 33) is a humorous and wistful tribute to the 15-foot-tall inflatable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that he installed on the lawn of his suburban Arizona home. Monson, the editor of the avant-garde online journal DIAGRAM, riffs on impermanence, neighborly ties, the seven wonders of the ancient world and the modern wonders of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

Two Poems from Jeff Walt’s “Leave Smoke”

Gival Press, an established independent publisher with an interest in LGBTQ literature, has just released award-winning poet Jeff Walt‘s new full-length collection, Leave Smoke. Born into a rural Pennsylvania community of coal miners and bricklayers, Jeff is an editor for the San Diego Poetry Annual, with literary honors that include a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a musical setting of his poems in concert at Carnegie Hall. Leave Smoke relentlessly probes the scars and longings of a life between two worlds, where midlife resembles Dante’s dark wood in the middle of the journey, and the family legacy of addiction and work-weariness pursues the narrator into his liberated middle-class gay life. Having too many choices is almost as bad as having too few, when one hasn’t had role models for choosing wisely. In this collection, moments of hope and tenderness–a brother’s latest stab at sobriety, breathing lessons with a Zen-like poetry instructor–are rare and shine like diamonds in coal.

Jeff has kindly permitted me to reprint the poems below. It takes a talented poet to come up with a new metaphor for stars, let alone two as surprising and piercing as these.

Stars from My Bed

On the ceiling glow-
in-the-dark & behind my eyes
gnarling sparks. No, no wishes.
These stars are sharp
like a tin can lid’s slit throat.
They write blues songs
but not about me. I love you
back then
where I am
mostly. I give the stars juicy details.
Sometimes just to piss me off
they go on and on
with stupid jokes about my old
jittery friends looking to score dime bags
while their constant need scuffed
down the once
white carpet
to a mottled circle
round my coffee table.
The needle made us
happy. The stars spread
like disease.

****

The Magician

Sundays in the living room, before Disney
and our baths, he made our mother vanish
right before our eyes. His long, black cape shiny

as water pouring through the hands of summer.
I swaddled my sister
tight in my eight-year-old arms that trembled

with frightened joy. We held our breath and bit
our nails as he sawed her in half, pulled nickels
from her ears, instructed her to bark

with a quick snap of his fingers. Then
they left us for the Windmill Tavern. Alone together,
we sang and danced in her pink pumps.

Draped in his silky cape, we saved lives and killed
off all the villains using the gagdets
that possessed the glittery magic

until the dark, late hours–our games behind us–
when the shadows became spirits our magic sprouted:
falling ice the footsteps of men

surrounding the house; winter’s spiraling whine
moaned up from the gut of the furnace.
When he asked if he could be my father,

I said, yes, wanting whatever that meant. We fled to closets
when they fought, afraid a clap of his hands
might reduce us to dust. The day he packed his bag

of magic, she begged him to stay. I hid
his wand in my sock–because,
in the dark, on his lap, he had pulled me tight, whispered

that he had the power to turn rocks into chocolate,
little boys into goats.
The black stick held all his tricks.

Two Poems from Garret Keizer’s “The World Pushes Back”

Garret Keizer is a widely published essayist, former Episcopal priest and English teacher, and the author of eight books. His nonfiction works Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperOne, 2004) and The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2004) were both transformative and comforting for me during a fraught period in my life. His nuanced meditations on what we owe each other gave me permission to feel all my feelings about a family situation that in the end, I could not resolve, only walk away from. Now, at age 65, he has released his debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back (Texas Review Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Award.

Critics often compliment a book by calling it “ambitious”, but such an ego-driven word would be untrue to the spirit of this collection–audacious as it is to be a progressive Christian moralist in a culture where hard-hearted reactionaries claim a monopoly on faith. As he says in the closing poem, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”:

In the best world every man
would know everything
that was worth knowing
and would know that others knew
as well as he, and would also know
that things worth knowing are few.

Keizer gently but pointedly warns his fellow American bourgeoisie not to mistake the contentment of privilege for true happiness, the latter requiring the soul-searching and pain of being born again into a humbler interconnectedness to others. This vision is embodied in “Cousin Rick”, a real-life example of Henri Nouwen’s ideal of “downward mobility”. Not spoiling the tale with any heavy-handed “Go and do likewise,” Keizer recounts the bare facts of his cousin’s life and death as a missionary in New Guinea, with affection and quiet bewilderment at the saints hidden among us.

Since reading this book, I’ve been conducting an argument in my mind with the poem “For Those Who Talk of Growth”. The speaker, at the start of spring, is clearing his lawn of the sand that the snowplow threw there in the winter, and a perhaps-too-facile metaphor comes to him:

The sand is what served me
for a time, some friend, some
creed that gave me traction
once, but now only burdens
the life I must rake free of it.

However, he immediately corrects himself. Snow will inevitably come again “and I shall go/nowhere without the sand.”

Certainly there are many who worship modernity for its own sake and think themselves clever for upgrading their creeds like new iPhones. I’ve confronted this bias in liberal Christians’ dismissal of the supernatural. But this poem rubbed me the wrong way, because it echoes a common threat leveled against us former Christians: “just you wait, when things get tough, you’ll come crawling back.” For some of us, the sand became quicksand. We didn’t leave because we thought life was easy, we left (or were kicked out) because the old answers were inadequate to meet the revelatory crisis that split our lives into before and after. It actually takes a lot of maturity to look back and admit that the sand did serve us for a time, and be grateful rather than bitter as we say goodbye.

The rabbis say that a person should carry two notes in their pockets: one, “The world was created for me,” and the other, “I am dust and ashes.” A similar balance is at play in the poem “Divine Comedy” (below), which expresses the exquisite difficulty of creating art with a mindset of gratitude rather than scarcity. Transcending praise and blame is a daily spiritual discipline where I often fall short.

The poems below are reproduced with permission from Texas Review Press (Huntsville, TX), copyright Garret Keizer.

THE STARS ARE NEAR

The stars are near,
and it struck me how near
tonight, how superstitious I have been
to take their exponential distances on faith,
like a man dubious about driving a nail
because he’s heard of empty space
between the molecules
in the hammer’s head.
They are near, the stars.
They will always be
near. I have neighbors
whose porch lights are more distant.
A man who believes himself estranged
from his father, because they quarreled
when he was young,
sees the day when he is no longer
young, and no longer estranged,
and no more distant from the nearest star
than from his final breath.
He vows, as I do,
that he will not have his distances
dictated to him any more.

****

DIVINE COMEDY

1.

Hell is eternal publication.
The damned never write a word
except their names at book signings,
never read anything but reviews
of books they can’t remember writing.

They are stuck on the radio for ages,
talking about their goddamn books—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
They call themselves on the call-in line
and ask, “So how did you get published?”

2.

Heaven is eternal publication.
The redeemed never write a word
not quickened by their inscribing:
“For Jane Doe, who graced this event,
and is the truth I sought by writing.”

They are guests on the radio for ages,
talking to God, who just loved the book—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
Again they drift to ground and find
their first acceptance, too good to be true.

Graphic Novels and Comics Roundup: Mama Tits, Pregnant Butch, and More

In mid-May, I attended the biennial Queers and Comics conference at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Kids, you too can grow up to be a novelist and purchase books like Hard to Swallow as “research”. Apart from the fact that SVA is very poorly ventilated and has insufficient bathrooms, I had an inspiring and intense weekend. I’d never been in a group with so many trans men before, and I had all the feels about the possible paths that my gender journey could take.

I heard a panel discussion with Diane DiMassa, creator of the wickedly funny (and trans-friendly!) radical feminist comic Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (Cleis Press, 1999), which is inexcusably out-of-print. I learned that my favorite Tarot expert, Rachel Pollack, created the first transgender superheroine, Coagula, for DC Comics title Doom Patrol; the PowerPoint featured a scene where Coagula dissolves a villain’s codpiece-like weapon into a flood of menstrual-looking red goo!

I attended a panel on comics about mental health issues, where I met LB Lee, the writer-artist behind the site Healthy Multiplicity. Lee’s work explores the premise that integration of multiple personalities is not always necessary or desirable. They conceive of themselves as a “system” comprising several minds with different names, ages, and genders in the same body. Their self-published graphic memoir Alter Boys in Love (available from their website) is a unique love story about the romantic and sexual relationships among members of the system. I admire them for working to de-stigmatize experiences that could teach us something new about personal identity and consciousness.

Image result for inside you there are two wolves they are boyfriends

(my internal family system)

Of course I bought many books for myself and my family. For my husband, Mama Tits Saves the World by Zan Christensen and Terry Blas (Northwest Press, 2016), a short feel-good comic book about a real-life drag queen who receives superpowers to bash homophobes. It’s poignant in retrospect because the political mood of this pre-Trump comic is “You’ve come a long way, baby,” riding the wave of optimism after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision.

For my mom-of-choice, Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag by AK Summers (Soft Skull Press, 2014), a well-drawn, witty, and emotionally honest graphic novel about a lesbian couple’s foray into the highly gender-stereotyped world of pregnancy and childbirth. Not exactly a memoir, but inspired by Summers’ own experience giving birth to her son in 2005, Pregnant Butch brought back memories of my gender dysphoria–which at the time I had no name for–when I was first considering fertility treatments and then trying to create a sufficiently mainstream “adoptive mom” online profile to attract prospective birthparents. (Luckily for us, we were found by a birthmom who’s as nonconformist as we are.)

Jane Eyre was a formative book for me. I’ve read it a half-dozen times since I was a child. So I couldn’t resist The Brontës: Infernal Angria by Craig Hurd-McKenney and Rick Geary (Headless Shakespeare Press, 2004), a melancholy, enigmatic graphic novel imagining what could have happened if Angria, the fantasy world created by the precocious and lonely Brontë children, had been a real place they could enter through a portal in the nursery. I was deeply affected by the sense of claustrophobia and fatalism that overshadowed the Brontës’ short lives, starting with the deaths of their mother and two sisters in childhood, and compounded by the young women’s maturing awareness of their limited career opportunities in 19th-century society.

There were a few too many skipped plot points in the narrative for me, where high-stakes interactions between the Brontës and the warring factions in Angria were foreshadowed and then left undeveloped. As a history buff, I’m thrown off by anachronistic mishmashes of different medieval/Renaissance fashion eras. In my opinion, 16th-century Spanish Armada helmets, Richard III hairdos, and King Arthur crowns don’t belong in the same scene, though Geary’s illustrations may have been imitating the unaware eclecticism of children’s fantasy world-building.

Other titles I brought home for my to-read shelf include Michael Derry’s Troy: The Whole Shebang (Derry Products, 2013), an anthology of his humorous erotic comic strip about pretty boys in L.A.; Lee Marrs’ The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp (Marrs Books, 2016), an anthology of her 1970s series about a frizzy-haired bi-curious teen sampling the delights of San Francisco; and Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir Gender Queer (Lion Forge, 2019). Among the projects on Kobabe’s website is a remake of The Runaway Bunny called The Nonbinary Bunny. Just what I needed!

 

Graphic Novels and Comics Roundup: Witches, Gods, and Ducks

The Young Master (soon to turn 7) and I have become regulars at Forbes Library’s kids’ department on Saturday mornings, listening to the ukelele band rehearse in the community room while we work our way through their extensive comics and graphic novels collection. Big-name superhero comics are the junk food of literature, stimulating but nutritionally questionable, though they’re good for his reading practice. To me, it all looks like a bunch of over-muscled white guys punching each other.

The purple melodrama of “Batman” suits my camp aesthetic, but at read-aloud time, I try to point out the mental-health ableism and inaccuracy of Arkham Asylum as a revolving door of grotesque villains. Batman and the Joker seem like two sides of self-hating homosexuality–the flamboyant predator and the Übermensch of the police state. I can’t help seeing Gotham through the lens of the other book I’m currently reading, French journalist Frédéric Martel’s new exposé In the Closet of the Vatican, which details how the Catholic Church’s most powerful and homophobic cardinals were in bed with fascist dictatorships during the day and with undocumented rent boys during the night.

But fear not, more wholesome fare is in our rotation. We’re delighted with Molly Knox Ostertag’s middle-grade graphic novel The Witch Boy, a coming-of-age story about a youth whose magical skills transgress the gender roles of his community. All the girls in Aster’s extended family are supposed to become witches, and the boys, animal shapeshifters who defend them from evil spirits. However, Aster’s passion is for witchery. With the help of Charlie, a non-magical girl from the neighboring suburb, he uses his forbidden talent to fight a monster in a way that only he can. Charlie, who has two (off-page) dads, is uniquely sympathetic to Aster’s dilemma because she’s a female athlete struggling for equal opportunities at her school. Both children are people of color, and Aster’s extended family includes a variety of ethnicities. The artwork, in cozy earth tones, is clear and expressive, and not too scary for younger readers. I promised Shane I’d pick up the sequel, The Hidden Witch, at Flame Con this summer. Book three, The Midwinter Witch, will come out in November.

We discovered George O’Connor’s Greek myth cartoons in the anthology Fable Comics, edited by Chris Duffy. (The Fairy Tale Comics and Nursery Rhyme Comics anthologies in this series are fun too.) O’Connor’s Olympians graphic novel series is a playful, stylish retelling of the tales that my generation first read in the classic D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. (Adam and I each still have our original copy of that bright orange hardcover.) Each Olympians book is about a different god or goddess. We began with O’Connor’s Hermes: Tales of the Trickster because the messenger god and his chaotically playful son Pan suit Shane’s personality 100%. This book is both a great adventure comic and a painless introduction to classic literature. For those wishing to dig deeper, there are humorous endnotes, discussion questions, and a bibliography.

When I was a kid, I had two anthologies that I re-read countless times: The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and The Smithsonian Collection of Comic-Book Comics. (Good thing I still own them because they seem to be out of print.) I pored over the noir adventures of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, the proto-feminist antics of Little Lulu, and the folksy satire of Pogo. Now, The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly (Abrams ComicArts, 2009), brings that experience to a new generation with 300+ pages of toons from the 1940s-50s. It looks like the editors worked hard to weed out stereotypes that wouldn’t pass muster in modern times. Check it out for such wacky gems as “Captain Marvel in the Land of Surrealism” and Uncle Scrooge McDuck’s expedition to Tralla La, a remote civilization without money, where he hopes for relief from the pressures of being a gazillionaire. Of course, human (or duck) nature is not so easy to escape…

Poetry by Charlie Bondhus: “Becoming Baba Yaga”

Just out from Sundress Publications, Divining Bones is the third collection from award-winning poet Charlie Bondhus, who has kindly permitted me to reprint a sample poem here. This compelling book stakes its territory in the liminal spaces between male and female, fairy-tale and horror, the archetypal struggle in the psyche and the mundane (but no less dangerous) conflicts of domestic life. The presiding deity of this shadow realm is Baba Yaga, the child-eating forest witch of Eastern European folklore, who guides the narrator to embrace traits rejected by mainstream gay culture. Aging, emasculation, and the grotesque lose their stigma and become sources of transgressive power.

Becoming Baba Yaga

I was born an old woman,
I mutter through lather
as I scratch away the beginnings
of a beard, each stroke bringing me
a hair closer to alignment
with the female divine
curled and kicking inside, while I glare
at the little snub nose which belies the long,
crooked phantom pressing my skin
like an erection in the underwear I buy a size too small.

My dreams are full of chicken legs.
My thighs tingle for the swish
and stroke of a checkered peasant
skirt. Invisible handwoven blouses girdle
my imaginary breasts. I tug at my boy-short
hair and think about raspberry-colored headscarves.

There is no other way
to say this: I was meant to be a wise
and powerful Russian witch
rather than an unimpressive man,

a truth that makes me ambivalent
about the pretty young women
who come seeking transformation,
asking me to shave away the fat
a child left, straighten a nose
crooked as a kidney bean, plump
up breasts that are like the hard, rounded
nubs of an old cook’s pestle.

Like any witch I serve
the vanities of all who can afford
my fee, helping those who hate
their bodies in ways different
from how I hate mine. I study

the college photos they bring
of glamorous, uncomplicated youth,
remembering an old, lost book
and the engravings in which I recognized
myself—a fierce, bestial woman
as necessary as bone and just as unseen
in a world whose first language is skin.

Sometimes when I’m finger-deep
in a body I think about the way beauty slithers
through the tunneled centuries,
collecting and sloughing trappings as it goes,
and I know my inherent self,
though not beautiful,
is timeless in the way of snakes,
storms, and ancient forests,
and if I were to turn scalpel and curette
on myself, out would pour a great and silent river
of clear water
from whose banks would emerge
wild things
unknown to beauty…here, here;
grip my hand and you’ll see it too—
wet fire;
living skulls;
a house that walks;
a male crone;
Baba Yaga birthing herself.

 

Originally published in OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts

Comics Review Roundup: Telgemeier, Burns, Adventure Time and More

The Young Master and I have been bonding over our love of comics and graphic novels since I returned from Flame Con with Warrior Cats manga and Lumberjanes. I read them aloud to him, and he re-reads them for the pictures and action, sounding out the simple words he knows. Every day for weeks after we finished Graystripe’s Adventure, he asked me to make-believe we were Graystripe and Firestar, feline best friends who lead a noble clan of feral cats in the forest. This full-color manga has a positive environmentalist message, as the cats’ home has been destroyed by human development. We also enjoyed the manga trilogy collected in Ravenpaw’s Path, where Graystripe’s friend Ravenpaw turns away from his warrior heritage to live in a barn with his male friend Barley. I appreciated the covert queer rep (though nothing romantic is shown on-page, Barley is essentially his life partner) and the storyline about the limits of loyalty to toxic family members. Although Graystripe is too tough to consider this a compliment, the cats as drawn by James L. Barry are awfully cute and have realistic body language–they’re genuine cats, not Disney plushies.

Some Flame Con panelists name-dropped the cartoon series Adventure Time, so I picked up Volume 5 of the comic book spin-off at the library to field-test with Shane. It’s a surreal, self-referential farce about a boy, his dog friend who has Plastic-Man-like abilities to reshape his body, and Princess Bubblegum of the candy kingdom of Ooo. The princess is a high-femme mad scientist with a rock star vampire girlfriend. It was bizarre and random in the way that I like, but judging from Shane’s reaction, the humor was possibly too wordy and subtle for a 6-year-old. Even so, we’ll give it another shot. (Thank you, Forbes Library, for having the most excellent comics collection for kids and adults.)

Since the Young Master is a fan of the movie “Coco”, and I bawl sappy tears every time we read the picture book version, I guessed correctly that we’d like Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, a kid-friendly but serious graphic novel about a Mexican-American family whose younger daughter has cystic fibrosis. In the days leading up to Día de los Muertos, the sick girl and her older sister cope with impending mortality through encounters with friendly spirits. Folks, I broke down crying on the last two pages and could hardly read them aloud. But they were happy tears. Have your tissues ready. Shane loved this one too. At his request, we borrowed Claudia and Mean Janine, a book in Telgemeier’s “Baby-Sitters Club” series, though tween girl friendship drama did not hold his interest. I think the issue is genre, not gender; he shows a strong preference for non-human protagonists and fantasy settings. Unlike Claudia’s Type-A parents, I will never police his choices as “not great literature”.

His latest make-believe scenarios come from Dragons Beware!, the second volume in the Chronicles of Claudette, by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. (I hope the library has the first book, now!) Claudette is a fearless, flame-haired, tomboyish child in a medieval French village. With the help of her kid brother Gaston, who’d rather be a pastry chef than a fighter, and their friend Marie, a nobleman’s daughter who believes all problems can be solved by diplomacy and good hair, Claudette challenges mythical beasts and defeats an evil wizard. Her father is also a formidable warrior and blacksmith, despite being legless in a wheelchair. Limited dialogue and action-packed panels make this book a great read-aloud for the first-grade set.

Definitely not for kids: Charles Burns’ body-horror trilogy of graphic novels, X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull (now collected in a single volume, Last Look, from Pantheon Graphic Library). Imagine that Samuel Beckett and Hieronymus Bosch dropped acid together and wrote a Tintin comic. I read an excerpt of The Hive in one of the annual Best American Comics anthologies some years ago and vowed to find the whole series so I could figure out WTF was going on. (Thanks again, Forbes Library!)

Mild spoilers ahead. The books braid the real-world story of Doug, a photographer and failed performance artist obsessed with his lost love Sarah, with the nightmare visions of his alter ego, Johnny 23, a low-level functionary in a breeding factory where woman-like creatures produce monstrous eggs. The features of his grotesque dream world make no sense in the first volume, but gradually reveal parallels to the themes around which Doug’s mind circles endlessly: the death of his depressed father, the work of avant-garde artists that Doug and Sarah imitate in a shallow way, and Sarah’s ritualized guilt and masochism. Why is Doug’s alter ego an invalid with a bandaged head, in a landscape of insanity? Did Sarah succumb to her abusive ex-boyfriend or self-harm? We are led to expect a dramatic resolution to their story, a big reveal worthy of the post-apocalyptic menace of its fantasy double. The ending of both narratives is banal and anticlimactic, which at first left me feeling cheated, till I realized this was the book’s brilliant objective all along.

The real tragedy of Doug’s life is that there is no tragedy; like his father before him, he falls victim to a self-aggrandizing narrative that the reader is at first seduced into accepting, too. Do the peculiar features of his nightmare world have any symbolic meaning, in the end, or is the message that “there’s no there there,” no substance behind the Burroughs-style cut-up performance poetry that Doug thinks is so profound? Sarah starts out as whatever the Goth equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, but she outgrows it and he doesn’t.

To the extent that there’s any logic to his fantasy of angry lizard-headed factory managers and egg-laying girls, I interpret it as Doug’s horror of adulthood. It’s the world of the suburban heterosexual salaryman, the Willy Loman figure that his dad became. The monster that looms invisibly over this world is the mother archetype. The real female body, representing the cycle of birth and death, ruins his idealized image of his lover and the Tintin-like eternal adolescence that he desires with her. Doug’s mother is never seen on-page, though she supposedly lives in the same house where Doug convalesces and Dad mopes in the basement with a photo of his old girlfriend. Johnny 23 brings 1960s romance comics to the breeder girls, the same comics that real-life Sarah loved and Doug disdained. The most grotesque moment, in a book that’s full of them, comes when Johnny’s favorite girl unveils her giant dripping ovipositor from beneath the blankets, begging him to catch the egg that he can’t bring himself to touch. The woman that Doug is married to, in the last book, doesn’t seem quite real: she is impossibly understanding of his Sarah obsession and occasional tumbles off the wagon of sobriety, and her helmet hairdo belongs to the previous generation. She is a sexless fantasy mother, Wendy to his Peter Pan.

I wondered about the Asian flavor of the nightmare realm. His sometime guide is a sort of midget sumo wrestler, and the monstrous characters at the unhygienic outdoor market speak a language speech-bubbled in kanji (probably not real but I can’t tell). Was this a nod to the ethnocentrism of the original Tintin comics? A clue comes in the final pages of Sugar Skull, when Johnny 23 encounters a Buddhist-looking shrine just before his aimless journey starts all over again. I think Doug is trapped on the wheel of samsara. The extreme manifestations of bodily excess in his dream world (culverts pouring blood, maggots with human faces, the fetus in the breeder girl’s dropped egg) are analogous to Siddhartha’s encounters with aging, sickness, and death (the Four Sights), but he has not yet taken the opportunity to seek an end to anyone’s suffering, not even his own. Perhaps the spirit of Inky the Cat will lead him out of the Hungry Ghost realm eventually? We can only hope.