Bryan R. Monte
AQ24 Spring 2019 Book Reviews
Jean Huets, With Walt Whitman: Himself, Circling Rivers, ISBN 978-1-939530-06-6, 192 pages.
Scott T. Starbuck, Carbonfish Blues: Ecopoems, (with art by Guy Denning), Fomite, ISBN 978-1-944388-53-9, 93 pages.
Jacob M. Appel, Amazing Things Are Happening Here, Black Lawrence Press, ISBN 978-1-625577-05-4, 152 pages.
These past six months I have received some interesting books from publishers concerned with three different subjects — a Walt Whitman documentary biography, a book on ecological poems with paintings of war and climate refugees, and a collection of short stories, which are strangely and memorably linked to each other due to their images and themes. These books are extraordinary due to their new treatment of old subject matter, their manner of presentation, or their ability to capture and hold one’s interest. Two of the three use visual media such as paintings, photographs and reproductions of historical documents to reinforce their points. The third’s fiction writing style is so explicit, its characters and images that will remain with you long after you have put the book down.
The first book is Jean Huets’ With Walt Whitman: Himself from Circling Rivers. This book is a beautiful, multi-media documentary of Whitman’s life and times and includes gems this reviewer was previously unaware even though he thought he knew Whitman’s biography fairly well. Its multi-coloured texts and reproduced images also make it suitable for instruction in secondary and tertiary schools. These gems include a reproduction of a draft of ‘Live Oak with Moss’ and pages from his journals. One early 1860s journal entry includes a sketch of a soldiers’ hospital ward, the location of the men’s beds and also list of some of the men’s requests for reading material or for contact with clergy.
Having read over a dozen books about Whitman and his written works, this is the first book I’ve seen which adequately describes Whitman’s immediate family and his ancestors, their influence on his life, and his parents’ and siblings’ response to his writing. (For example, Whitman moved away from New York at least twice in his life to be with family in St. Louis, Missouri and in Camden, New Jersey). The book also provides an interesting selection of paintings, drawings and photographs of the places Whitman worked, lived and frequented and also of Whitman and his friends and associates. This includes paintings of then rural Long Island, where Whitman’s father tried twice unsuccessfully to farm.
Walt Whitman: Himself also explores Whitman’s participation in literary circles and their New York hangouts and patrons such ‘Pfaff’s Chop House and Beer Cellar’ and ‘Henry Clapp’, who ran ‘the weekly literary magazine Saturday Press’. The book also mentions Whitman’s early artistic supporters such as Anne Charlotte Lynch Botta and Anne Gilchrist. It also mentions Whitman’s attendance at musical and theatrical performances in New York influenced his work, with specific references to his poetry.
Colour plates, paintings, drawings and photographs are beautifully reproduced and take up a significant portion of the book’s pages making it suitable for use in secondary and community college settings, although I suspect many scholars will also appreciate many of the documents, paintings or photographs Huets has assembled in With Walt Whitman: Himself.
The second book is Carbonfish Blues: Ecopoems by Scott T. Starbuck with artwork by Guy Denning. His book includes poetic observations of sequoias and spruces which live hundreds of years longer than humans, displaced Pacific Islanders who remember the ease of their ancestors, how rising sea levels will effect the world map and species, and the deaths of boat refugees. As he cleans a bluefin he’s caught in ‘Breadfruit’ he meditates on the four things that human beings really need to do to survive: ‘eat, mate, avoid predators, / three ways to give Thanks / to the Source of all.’ Thanks.
Opposite ‘Breadfruit’ is one of Denning’s 12 artworks. This one of a face in blue grey colours with an open, downturned mouth entitled Requiem 2 (for the now forgotten) and another face, Opposite Starbuck’s poem ‘One Raven’, about the Sitka Spruce’s more expansive sense of time, is a copper, brown face with eyes open looking out towards the reader on in a background of what appears to be books and newspapers. Denning’s art underscores the importance of Starbuck’s warnings about the destruction ahead due to global warming. In ‘Climate Reality’ Starbuck places the blame for global warming on schools and employers who: ‘said / if you followed the rules / you would be okay. …. The truth is …. they lied.’ ‘Rosetta Poem’ emphasizes mankind’s and Nature’s common ancestor. Starbuck reflects: ‘is it possible distorted language / has been (the) real enemy / all along?’In the next two poems, ‘Titanic Radio and the book’s title poem, ‘Carbonfish Blues’, Starbuck compares the sinking of the Titanic and the drowning of its passengers, especially those in ‘2nd and 3rd class’, to what will happen to those people (the poor) for whom no ‘lifeboats’ were even planned and others like Esther Hart, who stayed up all night fully dressed, ‘ready in a way / none can be for abrupt climate change’.
Immediately after these poems follows a double page spread of Denning’s The disasters of war 11 showing a woman holding a child on the left looking upward, and a man holding a child and a woman on the right looking downward. The words GRACIAS and MUSEO DEL PRADO appear printed vertically just to the left of both women. The artwork is reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War. However, it could also reflect the apocalyptic world soon to come if climate change is not halted. In a very short poem, ‘Soon’, Starbuck relates how dear things will soon become: ‘salmon cans will be opened like rubies. / Oranges will be as rare a diamonds.’
Starbuck’s poems also discuss the floating plastic waste in the world’s waters ‘Floating Plastic Jesus’, the endangerment and extinction of species in the last century ‘Warrior’s Story of The Last Wild Otter’ and ‘Invader’, and the price, according to Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan ‘per person per year in the top one billion people’ to save billions of people from death by heat, is ‘$450’. His dire poetic descriptions of habitat destruction due to over-harvesting, fishing and hunting, pollution and global warming are placed beside Denning’s artworks that depict warzone/ climate refugees or the faces of the dispossessed, such as in Denning’s sketch on a grey background of an expressionless face entitled Your opinion is worthless. Is our opinion and action worthless when it comes to global warming? Starbuck’s poem ‘Stepford Congress’ is ‘bought / by oil companies, / and dying / with them.’ doesn’t seem to show much optimism. In ‘Observer Post 9’ he imagines Earth’s epitaph written by an alien civilization. Students there ask their professor if the reasons humans drove every week to ‘‘poison stations’ / with many other options’ were “Convenience?” and “Insanity?” Their professor unfortunately answers: ‘“Yes and yes”’.
The last book is Jacob M. Appel’s Amazing Things Are Happening Here, his ninth book of short stories and his fifth with Black Lawrence Press. This collection of stories, with their snap endings, are set on the East Coast in Appel’s favourite fictional town of Creve Coeur, Rhode Island, in Manhattan or in Florida. One of his returning character types is the shy, male protagonists in ‘Canvassing’ and ‘Embers’, who despite their goodness and devotion, do not get the gal, and, in the first story, is also not as nice and as patient as he seems.
One thing that I find also enjoyable in short story collections are stories which are connected with each other thematically over time. Passion rules the day. The heart knows what the heart wants — and in the case of three female protagonists in ‘Canvassing’, ‘Grappling’, and ‘Live Shells’ — the heart wants bad boys. It isn’t interested in the logical suitors with steady jobs, from the right side of the tracks. It wants passionate and/or burly men from the wrong part of town.
Three stories with plot lines that for me are departures from Appel’s previous subject matter include ‘Helen of Sparta’, ‘Amazing Things Are Happening Here’, and ‘Dyad’. The first story involves the black sheep of a family returning drunk to her old high school to visit her old drama teacher, (long deceased), who almost gets herself and her nephews arrested for entering without permission. In ‘Amazing Things are Happening Here’, the collection’s title story, the head nurse at a Manhattan psychiatric hospital covers the disappearance of a patient for weeks by falsifying his file with fictional meds, treatments, consultations and ultimately a discharge. The story’s tension is due to the fact that someone, probably the narrator, will lose his/her job if the patient isn’t found, so that the falsification of the discharge is preferable to revealing the truth. And in ‘Dyad’, a childless, female ocean park ranger, contemplates leaving her husband for a French oceanographer and his eighth-year-old daughter, as they both urge the ranger to use her boat to keep some whales from stranding. She changes her mind, however, when one of the whales they had ‘saved’, suddenly and unexpectedly beaches itself anyway.
My criticism of this collection includes the following observations. ‘Bigamist’s Accomplice’ has a storyline I’ve read before in at least one other writer’s fiction work. A man and woman, who have Alzheimer’s, find each other in a senior home and their real partners decide to let them have each other (a rabbi even performs a fake wedding) because their partners with memory loss no longer recognize them and they realize these partners will be happier together.
My second criticism would be that some of the narrator’s vocabulary in ‘Live Shells’ occasionally seems not to be her own such as when she mentions ‘ersatz windmills’ and ‘inertia.’ Perhaps, however, I’m being unfair to working class, shop-operating, triple divorcees. Lastly, in ‘Grappling’, Jeb Moran, this story’s 1920s bad boy, who has spent time in the state penitentiary, uses the ‘N’ word once when reporting from whom he had won money through gambling and cockfights.
These reservations aside, however, Appel’s collection of short stories, brings to life the lives of American bad boys — gator wrestlers, machinists, murderers, bigots, and even a homicidal teenage wallflower — and the women who have been attracted to them or who have failed to notice their dangerous presence. Appel’s stories in Amazing Things Are Happening Here create a world where unfortunately, fabricating the truth, is often preferable and less complicated than telling the truth or facing it.