Bryan R. Monte – AQ23 Autumn 2018 Book Reviews

Bryan R. Monte
AQ23 Autumn 2018 Book Reviews

Jennifer Clark, Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman, Shabda Press, ISBN 978-81-930523-2-7, 2018, 139 pages.
Jayne Marek, The Tree Surgeon Dreams of Bowling, Finishing Line Press, ISBN 978-1-63534-363-2, 2018, 67 pages.

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is certainly a worthy adage to keep one for being deceived by surface appearances that cover underlying flaws. However, sometimes a good book does have an equally good, appealing cover. This is certainly true of Jennifer’s Clark’s Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman, a poetic history of John Chapman and Jayne Marek’s The Tree Surgeon Dreams of Bowling. Both books’ covers feature trees, but these are depicted in ways perhaps not seen before. Clark’s book’s front cover illustration, ‘Colony Farm Orchard Script’ by Ladislav Hanka, is a ‘drawing over hand-tinted paper’ of tree branches reaching upward on a tan, almost light, leather-coloured background. Marek’s front cover (see her photos in the summer 2018 AQ22 issue) includes darker, dense almost thin, vertical brown blocks on a green and blue background reaching up towards a yellow, pink and white speckled light. Both covers include organic growth reaching upwards. And this is what the poems in their books do. They are poetic journeys toward light and growth.

Clark’s book is an exploration of Chapman’s ancestry, his own history, including his travels through the Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana wilderness to plant apples trees for future settlers and even some details about arboreal husbandry. It begins with a ‘Prologue: come with me into the forest,’ in which describes Clark’s motivation and inspiration for writing her book which began with Clark’s then third-grade son asking her: ‘Was he real?’ Clark’s uncertainty about the answer leads her on her own journey of discovery. Her son’s question was further piqued by Clark’s chance find of a book about American folklore, which she later purchased at her local library. She then sifted through this ‘treasure of both truth and historical inaccuracies.’ After reading it, Clark remarked: ‘Even during Chapman’s lifetime, he was already turning into a walking myth’.

For example, Clark found evidence that contradicts the myth that Chapman was a teetotaller and vegetarian. And while she didn’t find direct evidence that Chapman was an abolitionist, his personality, Swedenborgian beliefs, habit of frequenting pioneer homes (including some, which were Quaker), and the conversations she had with Denver Norman, (descendant of the former slave, Mr “Cajoe” Phillips), all lead her to conclude Chapman was, at the very least, an abolitionist at heart. She ends her prologue hoping her poems will help ‘part the forest of time’ to enter a world that is ‘young and old, terrible and beautiful, bountiful and dying, all at once.’

The uplift of Clark’s poems begins with the first phrase of the first line of her first poem, ‘John Chapman (1774-1845)’ with a poem that could be a prologue for the entire collection. ‘To sow hope,’ and his simplicity of his mythic attire and purpose: ‘slip into a burlap sack….With a tin pot/ on head for hat, set bare feet to soil and go forth/ into the wild frontier.’ The poem further describes Chapman’s travel method, ‘following the rivers’ West in his ‘Search for a clearing in the woods’ and ‘Stoop, then furrow soil with a finger, …pull seeds…and one by one press down. Cover lightly with loam.’ The poem also describes Chapman’s diet of ‘cornmeal mush and coffee’ and how he slept ‘on the forest floor.’ It also mentions how he …‘Return(ed) each year to tend the saplings,’ and continued along the Maumee River, ‘leaving a trail or thirsty pioneers, drunk now/on the sweet juice of sermon.’

The following poem ‘Grafting has always been in fashion’ emphasizes Chapman’s preferred mode of planting apple trees from seed instead of the traditional method of ‘grafted shoots/dragging with them the seeds/of old Empire.’ Clark writes how Chapman’s mother delivered him whilst his father fought in the Revolutionary War and then died a year later delivering her third child, which also died.

Further poems discuss Chapman’s “marriage” ‘John meets a woman’, his abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, including one of its conductors, ‘Micajah “Cajoe” Phillips 1736?-1861’, and the voice of one of its enemies, ‘Ten dollars for my woman Siby’. Chapman’s mistake of planting Stinking Chamomile to ‘keep malaria at bay’ is mentioned in ‘Anathemus cotula aka Stinking Chamomile’, as is the extinction of native birds during his lifetime for food and fashion in ‘Wings, The Breast, The Bird’, and ‘Common Tern, 21. Scarlet Tanger, 2.’ respectively. In her poem ‘Ledgers from dry goods stores’ Clark offers a brief glimpse of the real Chapman found preserved in one of his grocery lists: ‘three pairs of “mockasins,”/brandy, whiskey, chocolate,/ sugar, gunpowder, tobacco,/ and pork.’. Through her research, Clark separates the myth from the man, but she also gives readers a good glimpse of both.

Appropriately for this issue on genealogy, Clark’s poems focus not only on John Chapman, but also his relatives. ‘Summer of 1776’ mentions his mother, Elizabeth, near death and his father, Nathaniel, away fighting in the Revolutionary War. Nathaniel is also mentioned later as a tenant farmer in ‘One Tree Orchard’ and he later moves with the rest of the family from Longmeadow, Massachusetts to Marietta, Ohio. Chapman’s visit to his youngest sister, Sally and her husband, John Whitney to their Washington County, Ohio farm is mentioned in ‘Every Strike We are Hewn’. But it is Chapman’s sister Persis and her husband William Broome mentioned in ‘Persis Waiting’, who provided the most support for Chapman’s apple planting. According to Clark, in her well-researched reader’s notes, the Broome’s ‘probably served as an ever-moving base for her brother’s seed operation’. Clark quotes that ‘Robert Morgan notes…(Chapman) employed his brother-in-law to help with the nurseries…the couple moved to Perrysville and Mansfield, Ohio’ … (and that) When around 1834, John expanded into Indiana, Persis and William Broome followed’.

As mentioned above, I found Clark’s historical notes and the illustrations she includes just as interesting as her poems. Her book’s illustrations include sketches of John Chapman from 19th century magazines. There are also maps of the US indicating how far one could travel in a day, of the Underground railroad, of Mount Vernon, Ohio near which Chapman owned land and planted trees, and of the spread of the invasive stink week mentioned above. In addition are illustrations on grafting, a women’s hat decorated with with stuffed birds, the Blennerhassett Mansion, as well as historical photos of Deborah and Enoch Harris, Rosella Rice and the 5 cent US first class Johnny Appleseed commemorative stamp issued in 1966 (a treasure in my own boyscout stamp collection). Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman is surely a treasure-trove of information for poets, teachers, historians, etc., and could be used in primary to tertiary schools to teach how history is transformed into folklore and then into art.

Jayne Marek’s The Tree Surgeon Dreams of Bowling, is another outstanding book worthy of mention in these pages. Marek, both a writer and a graphic artist, whose photographic work was featured in the AQ22 this past summer, brings these skills together to create a memorable poetry book. Its fifty-four poems are divided into three sections: ‘Just Out of Reach’, ‘Pacific Rim’, and ‘Of Grace’.

The first section is devoted to grief, loss and regret. The first poem entitled ‘Prognosis’ sets the tone for the rest of the book: ‘Raking and raking/ But the long tines cannot gather up grief/ That waits beyond the fence.’ This physical intervention is not enough to keep the natural world and death at bay. In the next stanza, Marek remarks: ‘Grief is like fear/Seen from another direction. The two hunch over,/ stare like stone monsters guarding a stoop.’ In the next poem, ‘Mistakes’, we see how hard the narrator is on herself regarding loss: ‘I’m unable to do over and find shelter.’ In the prose poem, ‘Drowned Mole’, she describes the discovery and removal of a dead mole from her garden. It is with regret that she moves and discards something so beautiful: ‘your fur sleek as a rich matron’s coat on opening night,…Forgive this stick that lifts at your ribs and hips.’ She meditates further on the meaning of life when she describes a jellyfish in a tank,

as if drifting meant nothing    indecision
a turn in darkness toward an inaccessible shape
the purpose of lives    mine

In ‘Fable’ Marek declares that her poems are not for those ‘who pine for a story that says life is simple/as this scalped green yard’. This poem describes how she sees two birds attacking a third bird as she drives by and wonders if she should intervene. ‘Clay’ is about a potter who dunks her fired pots in the same creek from which Walter, whom she identifies from a silver burn scar on his neck, … ‘is pulled… in the spring.’ ‘Deepest Snow’ is divided into two sections which takes its title from a line by Naomi Shihab Nye: ‘That was the deepest I ever went into the snow.’ Its first section is about the narrator being unexpectedly buried in snow up to her neck after losing her balance from a Norwegian ski path. The second uses ‘Flying snow’ to describe dementia ‘everything slippery and grayish white—’. There are many poems with malevolent winter scenes in this section in which glass shatters from the cold, ‘Cut Glass’ and snow hides tracks and seeds in ‘Winter Ruins’. In ‘So Late Winter’ it finally relents ‘two weeks into spring’ when a child lies in a closed casket. In ‘Elegiac Unsonnet for My Cat’ the poet writes of her cat “lost in the cold of winter, at the foot of a renewed/ Year, in a collapse of snow”. In ‘Would the Good People Please Stop Dying’ she describes the dangerous drive down a barely-visible, ice-and-mist covered road just before dawn.

The second section, ‘Pacific Rim’, is about the poet’s spiritual journey and observations in Asia, especially in Japan, India and China. The first poem, ‘Hands in Temple Smoke’ begins with a sort of purification ritual in an old wooden temple right ‘tucked between concrete walls’ where urban school children and uniforms and gray bicycle riders pass by. She observes how a woman in the temple: ‘reaches into the bitter wisps / of silver and white, waves them / toward her face, her heart’. In ‘Buddha Touch’, the poet enters seeks spiritural contact in the temple. ‘Panda Mania’ describes the ‘sweet smell’ of panda pancakes at the zoo (and all the surrounding merchandising of panda shoes, bags, etc.), which intrudes into the temple. In ‘The Woodturner’s Shop, Itsukushima’, the poet buys a small bowl from a traditional craftsperson. It is the first in a series of craftsperson poems others being ‘Nishijin Textile Center’ about the making of kimonos, ‘Grass Writing’ about traditional, carved Japanese script and landscapes, and ‘The Art of Teeth’ about traditional masks on display in a Tokyo museum.

With the poem, ‘Postcard from Assam’ the poet continues on her Asian travels in India’s Northeast. Here the poet comments on the ‘heat…in the morning dust,’ the ‘orange clouds in endless scarves/ too long to wrap up.’ She describes herself and her fellow travellers as “pale foreigners’ and as plants ‘who need water’ and who need to be ‘Lift(ed)…over the plains, over the spice plants for which the airliners of our escape are named—’. In ‘Lotus Eaters’ she’s in the Punjab; in ‘Her Feet’ at Mother Theresa’s tomb in India. The last four poems in this section, describe her experience and observations of a Ming section of the Great Wall, a ‘Carp Mobile’, ‘Kite-Flyers’, ‘A Coal Spill, Yunnan’, and looking at the flora and fauna in ‘Blue on Cang Shan’. The poet’s attention to detail helps the reader zoom into unforgettable details in each location. The last poem in this section about the mountain is especially poignant due to its description of details both small and large: the shadows created by butterfly wings and ‘a cable car ride / that swung over green/ windy-pine fingers’ and the ineffable: ‘thin air/ scraped by clouds.’

The last section of Marek’s book, ‘Of Grace’ details her removal to the West Coast after a teaching career in the Midwest. She writes about the island ferry, ocean waves, the emptying out of her former home. In ‘Woods Path’ in the Northwest, far from her former life, the poet asks: ‘what is best, what is death, what matters?’ Then by a ‘fallen trunk,’ the poet sees ‘the hollow under its feet filled with mud.’ — perhaps a meditation on ‘from dust to dust’.

Further poems in this section of special interest to this reviewer include ‘Sweet Spots for Owls’ with its syllabic count which captures the bird’s pauses and bursts of energy and which imitate the flow of the poet’s thoughts. ‘Of Grace’, the third section’s title poem describes the regeneration the poet feels as the natural world reaches out to her. In ‘I Miss My Life in Another Dimension’ the poet is transported back in her imagination to a house and a neighbourhood in the Midwest where she’d lived and taught for years. Here, the speaker talks about the house’s familiar ‘scuff marks at the doorway’, its ‘old oak trees in the yard…Deep-rooted in the black farmland earth.’ It was a house with ‘frequent gatherings…Of artists, friends, professors, students…who read my books, have my art photos mounted.’ ‘Of Grace’s’ intimate details show poet’s painful separation from what’s left behind as she moves forward in a new place, ‘six hundred miles from here.’

The title and final poem of the entire collection brings the book’s themes together. The tree surgeon as the poet, has feet planted: ‘one on a limb’. The natural world has its own character and power with a ‘tree-hand…(and) twigs with five leaf fingers…(that)slap…when I lift / the cutting tool and let it bite.’ These branches force the tree surgeon to hold his chainsaw back as if he were ‘standing / at the line, one arm cocked and heavy/gripping my favorite bowling ball.’ His swaying movement in the tree personifying the poet’s thoughts perhaps about the sometimes dangerous reductive art of poetry ‘going nowhere but cutting away/things I wish I didn’t need.’

I highly recommend both of these books due to their artistry, both poetic and visual, and due to their regenerative themes. I’m sure they will keep your lamp of inspiration burning during the shorter days and longer autumn and winter nights ahead.   AQ

Bryan R. Monte – AQ22 Summer 2018 Art Reviews

Bryan R. Monte
AQ22 Summer 2018 Art Reviews

Günther Förg, a Fragile Beauty, Amsterdam Stedelijke Museum, 24 May to 14 October 2018
Wayne Thiebaud, Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, 10 June to 16 September 2018.

It was if the gods themselves were listening when I chose Texture as the theme for AQ’s 2018 summer issue. Amsterdam’s Stedelijk and Wassenaar’s Museum Voorlinden have both recently opened retrospective exhibitions by artists, whose primary focus is texture: the Stedelijk featuring work by Günther Förg and the Voorlinden, work by Wayne Thiebaud. It’s truly an embarrassment of riches for texture art devotees.

How the view changed

The Stedelijk’s Günther Förg, a Fragile Beauty, runs through 14 October 2018. The Stedelijk’s collection, the largest in world, curated by Veit Loers, includes work from his entire oeuvre including a variety of mediums such sculptures and photographs, and materials such as bronze, lead and plaster, in addition to more traditional paintings on canvas. The exhibition is organized thematically, starting with a gallery of black and white photos of Bauhaus buildings. Most of these photos are of exteriors, but a few are of interiors, taken through the regularly-ordered blocks of the window frames. It’s this raamwerk leitmotif that is used by Loers throughout the exhibition to provide thematic unity. It is also reinforced by a series of four framed photographs entitled Wall Painting, Vienna Succession, 1990. These include four slightly different landscape views from windows in a house in which the exterior is dark forcing the viewer to look outwards.

A second unifying element or motif is, of course, colour. Some of Förg’s paintings are in fact wall-sized panels of single colours that were originally viewed singly or placed next to each other for contrast. This contrast is even more apparent in a gallery filled with dozens of paintings, which have two or more contrasting colour panels on one canvas but which frequently share a common, grey underlayer. Many of these paintings remind me of Abtract Expressionist Mark Rothko’s horizontal bar paintings where two or more bars create a tension and a unity with each other based upon their surface and underlying colours.

As the visitor continues from one gallery to the next in this exhibition, the window motif begins to morph from a cross-hatch to more of a cross motif and it is combined on canvases with the colour tensions. One gallery, the fourth or so from the beginning contains a collection of nothing but crosshatches on somewhat monochromatic backgrounds. These cross motif and colour tensions are exploited later in what seems like landscape paintings. This two elements come together in Förg’s, Untitled, 1995 in which light green, light, earth-tone orange and white are mixed together with brown, fence-like crosses. It’s a painting that reminds one of Piet Mondriaan’s Impressionistic, Zealand seascapes with tidal barriers from the late 1910s.

Some of the best and darkest pieces in this exhibition are towards the end. In the same a gallery as Untitled, 1995, are a series of dark, hung, large, canvas-sized bronzes. These bronzes include three works with large, deep slashes (all Untitled, 1988) and two with seemingly semi-buried, fossil-like shelled creatures (both Untitled, 1990). A smaller gallery on the right, which dead-ends, includes work from the 1970s and 1990s. This gallery includes one dark brown, almost monochromatic painted canvas, (Untitled, 1974), which, in this reviewer’s opinion, seems to include ghostly torsos looking outwards in a layer just under the surface.

Beyond this gallery and the next is a collection of Förg’s photographs including close-ups of women reminiscent of 1950s glamour photos and a photo of a young man sprawled at the bottom of a staircase either from a fall or another reason from a true crime magazine. These noir images while interesting (as are the photos of ancient mosaics and modern architecture from Italy from a few galleries before) seem, however, to detract from overall trajectory of Förg’s art.

In contrast to the gallery with the dark, hanging bronzes, is the last, very large gallery with what seem like giant, jagged, up-and-down, trial, pastel-coloured pencil markings on white canvases Untitled 2007 and 2008 and mixed-media, untitled white plaster sculptures from 2001. His mixed media white plaster sculptures include objects such as a blue torch or photographer’s flash, white and green plastic bottles, and a fluorescent lamp and copper wiring. These pieces are in stark contrast from the work that has preceded it and obviously an attempt by the artist, in the last decade of his life, to continue to re-invent himself. Perhaps if Förg had lived longer, these new, wall-size practice palettes and smaller, playful plaster sculptures might have enabled him to continue to create work in new directions.

Have your cake and eat it too?

Wayne Thiebaud’s mouth-watering pie slices, cakes, sundaes and donuts are known to almost any Art 101 college student. He is probably the most famous, living American artist and the reason this writer travelled from his usual Amsterdam museum beat to Wassenaar’s Museum Voorlinden to see and interview the great man on the opening of his first European retrospective. Unfortunately, due to an illness and his advanced age (97) Thiebaud didn’t make it to his opening, but museum director Suzanne Swarts ensured that the show went on, providing rolling commentary for the press as she took them through the Voorlinden’s galleries featuring Thiebaud’s work.

Museum Voorlinden has collected approximately 60 of Thiebaud’s works from the 1960s to the present from both public and private collections. The exhibition is curated in such a way that it fortunately seems to answer some of the questions I was going to ask the artist himself. For example, one of my questions was: ‘The room reflections in Two Paint Cans (1987) reminds me of the reflections in silver, glass, and mirrors in some 17th century Dutch still lifes and interior paintings. Were you consciously aware of this tradition as you painted these objects?’

This seemed to be immediately answered in the first gallery where Two Paint Cans (1987) hangs just to the right of Robed Woman with Letter, (1976-2013), who has the same facial gesture (albeit from the front) of bracing herself for bad news as does the woman evocative of Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1663-64). So right from the beginning, this exhibition places Thiebaud’s oeuvre firmly in the realm of high-art, although Thiebaud insists, as Swarts reminded the press, of calling himself a painter and not an artist. Another unifying technique in the same gallery that is used to present Thiebaud’s work, is chromaticism. At the opposite end of the gallery are two paintings that use similar green colours. The first is Green Dress (1966-2017) of a seated woman in a green dress and the other is White Shoe (1995), the title shoe painted on a green glass table. On the facing wall between these two sets of paintings are paintings of a lipstick (Lipstick, 1964), a portrait of a seated man wearing a red tie and a woman wearing a pink dress, red shoes and a red hairbow, both figures arms crossed, looking opposite directions, and their cheeks flushed (Two Seated Figures, 1965), and a candy counter (Peppermint Counter, 1963) with its 5 and 25 cent striped peppermint sticks and its 10 cent, red, candy apples, the unifying colour between of these three paintings being different shades of red. Thiebaud’s people or figures, as he calls them, seem to come straight out of Edward Hopper, but their boredom or anger is painted in the much brighter California light with its blue and green shadows.

It is these paintings of everyday American images that made Thiebaud, one of the first and most original of the Pop Artists (a term he continues to disavow). Unlike Warhol and the other Pop Artists, however, Thiebaud doesn’t appropriate others’ commercial or comic designs or celebrity photographs for his art. Yet, he does paint common objects from everyday American life: for example, platoons of pie and cake slices lined up for sale in a canteen. And he paints these objects the way he sees them and in his own style with thick slathers of paint, similar to icing strokes. This is not realism. It is an artistic reinvention of what’s before him, giving it texture and thus more visual and mouth-watering appeal such as in Pie Counter, 1963 and Cakes and Pies 1994-1995.

If these beautiful, delicious objects and subjects are perhaps too saccharine or tame for some art aficionados, then they may focus their attention on room 5, which contains Thiebaud’s landscapes, especially his cityscapes which are sure to shake them up. These include aerial views of the agricultural Central Valley, near Thiebaud’s home in Sacramento, or the vertiginous cityscapes with people and cars hurtling down rollercoaster hills painted in his San Francisco Potrero Hill studio. Thiebaud’s somewhat naively-painted, Diebenkornesque, rural landscapes have a feel of God looking down on his/her green creation on a good day, one with one tree lit in golden twilight in Reservoir 1999 fit for Blake’s or Swedenborg’s angels. The perspective in these paintings also sometimes folds out in a somewhat M. C. Escheresque manner to create a new area, expanding the painting’s three traditional planes Fall Fields 2017, or to include the mirage of the reflection of lights in a body of water from a city or large factory that isn’t there. In contrast to these pretty rural landscapes are the monstrously hilly San Francisco cityscapes, filled with skyscrapers Intersection Buildings 2000-2014 (which I believe is a composite painting of California Street) roller coaster motorways, empty urban areas under or around the motorways or in construction areas Towards 280, 2000 and steep hills, such Bluff 2013 which seem to only be climbed at your own peril.

These two very different types of landscapes answer another question I had: ‘Do your two contrasting types of rural and urban landscapes express the order, security and perhaps boredom of Thiebaud’s candied-appled, suburban home in Sacramento vs. the artistic exhilaration and intrepidness you felt working in San Francisco? I think the answer to that question is another resounding: ‘Yes’.

A final question I had for Thiebaud which would have probably come at the beginning of the interview after ‘How are you feeling today at your first European respective?’ It would have been: ‘What influence did your southwestern Mormon origins and Southern Californian upbringing have on your painting?’ I think the first obvious answer to this question can be found in Thiebaud’s work ethic: at 97, according to director Swarts, he still paints everyday. It’s also found in his pastel colour palette, the fully lit figures or objects, whether on display or under the California sun, with their blue and green shadows. In addition, it can found in Thiebaud’s humility and his service to others. Even after Thiebaud found fame in the ’60s, he continued to teach and mentor undergraduates out West at college and university rather than surround himself with a coterie of admirers and move back East. Thiebaud’s art has a simplicity to it, in its subjects and its technique, which continues the credo of ‘less is more.’ (Not Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s but Robert Browning’s in ‘Andrea del Sarto’). Thiebaud probably got this from his work in commercial art. It helped him focus on his subjects—at least the human and edible ones—and find the extraordinary in the ordinary, which has made and sustained his long career.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ21 Spring 2018 Book Reviews

Bryan R. Monte
AQ21 Spring 2018 Book Reviews

Jacob M. Appel. Millard Salter’s Last Day. Gallery Books, ISBN 978-1-5072-0408-5, 245 pages.
Arthur Allen. Here birds are. Green Bottle Press, ISBN 978-1-910804-09-4, 27 pages.
Alida Woods. Disturbing Borders. Finishing Line Press, ISBN 978-1-63534-405-9, 29 pages.

It is my privilege, as a reviewer and editor of poetry and fiction, to regularly make the acquaintance many writers in the early phases of their careers. It is this discovery of new or not-so-completely-established writers that makes the hundreds of hours I put into Amsterdam Quarterly worthwhile. The three writers above (all former AQ contributors which makes me doubly proud, of course) have all, within the last few months, published beautiful, noteworthy books which I’d like to bring to the attention of AQ’s readers.

The first writer, Jacob M. Appel, is now, no longer a stranger to the publishing world. When I first met him almost coincidentally in New York City, in 2014, he had already published a few books, which had won some major awards. In the summer of 2014, I received an email from Appel asking if I’d like to review his books. Unknown to him, I was in Manhattan at that very moment to meet digital artist, Yolanda V. Fundora, (who would later contribute work for three AQ issues and two yearbook covers). As we met at the hotel’s street front café, I saw a young, (approximately twenty-years younger than I am), man wearing a name badge for a New York hospital. He stopped to give me three of his books: a novel, The Biology of Luck, an essay collection, Phoning Home and a short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper. I found him to be intelligent and articulate and I hoped the books he left for review would be the same.

And they were. Since then, Appel’s work has never ceased to surprise and delight me. His fiction, as I have remarked in past issues, reveals the work of a master storyteller. He grabs his audience on the first page and doesn’t let go of them until his intricately constructed plotting mousetrap artfully closes upon its victim on the last page. Millard Salter’s Last Day, is a perfect example of Appel’s fictive technique. It is about the life of a Jewish, New York doctor, a psychiatrist, who on the first page, expresses his desire to kill himself by the end of that day. This is due to the grief he has experienced after the loss of a second wife, whom he dearly loved, and a patient with whom he had a close relationship.

However, almost everything that Salter experiences that day seems to pull him back into the land of the living: a colleague at work, whom he hates, tells him she wants his position at the hospital when he retires. Salter’s first wife reveals that she doesn’t hate him for divorcing her because she was also having an affair and she makes a pass at him. So does a former schoolmate who is in town for more than one (she hopes) reunion. Later the same day, Salter’s luncheon conversation with his son, who, in his forties, has not make a life for himself, is interrupted by a gas explosion across the street which they both survive unscathed (except for a few scorch marks on Salter’s suit), but which seriously wounds the hospital administrator who just minutes before badgered Salter for an overdue report. Even a surprise 75th birthday party at his home, including friends and family, off foot him. Through all these events however, Salter continues his ‘Do I or don’t I’ meditation right to the very end. In the meantime, the reader gets a window into the current state of high-end medical and especially psychiatric care in America, ruled over not by doctors, but by hospital administrators. It is a world that is vividly rendered, where Appel adds one plot complication upon another until the novel’s very last scene. (Please, don’t read ahead, though, or you’ll ruin the ending for yourself).

The way I met the next writer, the poet Arthur Allen, is also fairly coincidental. Six or seven times a year I receive requests from university students enquiring about internships at Amsterdam Quarterly. Unfortunately, I must disappoint these young people with the news that AQ is not a business but rather therapeutic hobby for a disabled older man with multiple sclerosis. One of these students was Arthur Allen. I read through his résumé and wrote him: ‘Unfortunately, I don’t have an internship to offer you, but looking at your CV, I’ll bet you’ve got a few poems for me.’

And he did. He sent two poems, ‘On my father’ and ‘Unresolved harmonies,’ which I immediately knew I wanted to publish in AQ16’s issue on Interiors, Gardens, Landscapes and Music. When he attended the AQ 2016 Yearbook launch party, he read his poems from a journal in a hand with very few strikethroughs or other revisions. If I’ve ever met a natural-born poet, it’s certainly this young man. His chapbook, Here birds are is an excellent exploration of grief and intimacy related to the sudden death of one’s father caused by a hit and run driver. From the very beginning it addresses this grief through a description of how the father was found, ‘on his side, limbs like crushed cowslip flowers / tangled in the bicycle frame,’ to his mother’s unspoken grief witnessed when he was child: ‘She was siting gently / sinking without / sinking.’ In ‘The First Night,’ the poet asks: ‘the cosmos … “Why me?” … and it barely suffers to reply “Why not?”’

Allen continues to look for answers among the birds in the British countryside. In ‘Augury,’ he imagines his father’s body during autopsy as that of a bird’s: ‘gone / in wind, in perdu, insignificantly battered’ how the pathologists ‘opened and pinned a pair of wings… to relieve rigor mortis’ The poet’s loss of his father is further mentioned in the extended avian metaphor because ‘I do not know “the portent of the pitch / or direction of song,’ but the poet does know: ‘… it does not look like a man / asleep.’ ‘Poem after the manner of simple hearts’ describes the funeral and the mother and child visiting her husband’s/his father’s grave ‘The sky is bloody and violent.’ Allen’s thematic and imagistic concern with birds and bird metaphors in Here are birds is revealed halfway through the chapbook in its title poem’s epigram. Here Allen defines augury as “Interpreting the will of the gods by studying the patterns of birds, both from their flight, alites and their voice, oscines.” There is also the poet’s belief that ‘… Nature / cures Nature,’ in the next poem, father and his attempt to recover him, if not physically, then in his thoughts. In “Serenade” what Wallace Stevens, Schopenhauer and Mark Twain said all fail to comfort the poet who remarks: ‘What do they know anyway.’

The four-part poem, ‘From Amsterdam,’ towards the chapbook’s end, continues this conversation, but in a setting more familiar to AQ’s Dutch-resident readers and without the previous avian imagery. It also reveals some negative elements of the speaker’s relationship with his father. This poem begins with a letter addressed to G. with various dates which, in its first section, describes a night with friends in the Vondelpark in which he uses an extended arachnidan metaphor: ‘we hung in the / nets, strung out and dozing and everyone changing the / sound of my name in their mouths.’ In section I., the poet returns to the theme of his lost father, and his father’s perception of him as a ‘lazy’ because his ‘drawing in the sand with a stick’ wasn’t enough for his father. Now, writing in the Vondelpark his ‘notebook has become a sign of occupancy.’ In section II, even looking at ‘Picasso’s fish’ sculpture reminds him of his father’s absence. In the third section, a somewhat weaker section of this series, the poet describes ‘hot pancakes wrapped in his hand,’ which he wanted to ‘skim…into the canal like perfection reflections of the moon.’

The last poem in the collection reveals finally an intergenerational conflict between father and son which has gone on for three generations in which the poet describes ‘Bill,’ his grandfather ‘whose death was a scandal only to himself’ This rich, rhythmical poem with its very original images describes sometimes standard, generational, pendular personality type swings between father, son and grandson. The grandfather, like his grandson, was also called ‘lazy’ because he was a farmer who ‘wouldn’t hoe his corn / and lost to frost the lot he’d sown.’ The poet describes his grandfather as dead before he died ‘Scratched to death by his familiars,’ … grown white … put himself to bed / each night on butcher’s ice,’ … and his ‘coffin-varnished mind.’ These descriptions of his grandfather’s laziness and his preoccupation with death is also reflected in the poet’s own perceptions. It is perhaps a bit unfortunate that the poet didn’t explore his similarity with his grandfather a bit more and also their differences with their father/son. Nonetheless, collectively, these poems are the product of an inventive, intelligent mind trying to grieve, through art, about a parent’s sudden, tragic death and about what separated and connected him to his family whilst they were still alive.

Similarly to book above and all good books of poetry, Alida Woods’ book Disturbing Borders tries to cross the line or bridge the gap between what is said and not said, what is seen and what is only felt, and between life and death, mortality and immortality, through images from landscapes, home interiors and her family. I first became acquainted with Woods’ work at the Blue Flower Winter Writers’ Conference at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in January 2015. She attended a class led by internationally-renowned, multi-award winning poet, Carolyn Forché. During class, Woods read a poem entitled ‘The Clearing.’ I told her about AQ and asked if she would consider submitting the poem for AQ16, whose theme was Interiors, Gardens, Landscapes and Music. She promised she would, but like many promises made at conferences thousands of miles away, I wondered if she would actually send it.

And she did. I paired her poem with a digital image by Yolanda V. Fundora entitled Jockey Hollow #3. Her poem’s placement next to Fundora’s golden clearing received many positive comments from readers. In addition, I got to know Woods a bit more when she visited Amsterdam with her partner in April 2017 and attended AQ’s Writers’ Group. She told me at the time she was working on finishing a book of poems for a publisher. Disturbing Borders is that book.

This chapbook of twenty-seven introspective and meditative poems describes how desert, seacoast, suburban gardens, ageing parents and lost things transport the poet to places ‘beyond maps.’ In the book’s opening poem, ‘Crossing,’ she describes how watching her daughter carry her child reminds her of watching war refugees carry their children. She wonders how they will find ‘a place we called home.’ Then harkening back perhaps to a time early in human history, she writes about the necessity of human cooperation. ‘We will arrive carrying each other / across the river / across some faint line in the sand / or we will not arrive.” The theme of refugees is addressed in the next poem at the end after the speaker has lost a glove and remembers the effects of a flood: “three people downriver … or a boy and his mother crossing some border’.

In ‘Valley of Fire, Utah’ and ‘Folding Lesson’ she mentions the lost civilizations of the Aztec and the Wampanoag and relates them to lost parts of herself from her childhood in the second poem when she goes to visit her mother ‘in a home not is not her home’ or ‘in the village of the elderly’ as the poet refers to it in third poem entitled ‘Eighty seven.’ In ‘Peripheral Vision’ the poet relates her mother’s blindness to her own drive from the mountains into the valley where, because of a storm the poet reports it is ‘darker here and deep green’ and ‘I cannot see’.

In ‘Deadheading Daffodils,’ Woods writes how gardeners ‘create their own geography / careful boundaries drawn, / plots of obedient perennials / resurrecting each year’. In ‘Cartography’ Woods wonders where sleep and the unconscious take us: ‘Where we go at night after night / on this pilotless craft / heading beyond maps—’ Loss in represented in two poems, ‘The House of Forgetting’ and ‘Pigeon River Gorge,’ the first about the memories her mother’s house still holds after her death and the second about the slaughter of an entire species of hundreds of millions, the carrier pigeon, by American immigrants in a little more than a century. ‘In the Drawer’ the poet finds a letter her sister wrote to her ‘two days before she died’ but never sent, among a collection of pencils that have ‘reproduced in the drawer, / Chap Stick and three tubes of sun cream.’ It is a message that in: ‘Buried there’ it reminds her ‘that life is messy and unsharpened’. Framed by the event of an autumn dog walk, ‘The Clearing’ is meditative poem in which the reader can feel and see the dog’s ‘fur ripples in the brittle air / that draws us into this amber afternoon.’ This poem is about more than a dog walk. It contains an epiphany, perhaps with her mother’s and sister’s deaths in mind, when the poet notes ‘The moon lifts her belly up over the trees’ and ‘shadows reappear and ghosts speak softly’. Her mother’s shadow is specifically mentioned in the next poem, ‘In Your Mother’s House,’ in which there were ‘an abundance of things and a scarcity of love’. In the poem’s conclusion, the speaker’s mother’s shadow ‘slid onto / the pages of her / unwritten book’.

‘Dancing in Cassadaga,’ is about a visit to a psychic village that helps define another disturbed border in this collection. The psychic’s home décor and ambiance includes a talking bear ‘warning intruders / that crossing the line may / involve intricate encounters with poetry.’, ‘the smell of patchouli’ and ‘made in India drapery’. The psychic tells the poet about her children’s lives or characteristics in the present, the poet’s past life in Egypt and her advice for the poet’s future. “The Color of Morning” the chapbook’s terminal poem is located in some borderless time and place although it takes place in the poet’s hallway at 4 a.m. Here, the reader cannot be certain at first if the poet is describing an apparition of her mother in the hallway with her daughter, the poet herself, in her arms, or her own daughter with her grandchild. Once again, as in Allen’s collection’s terminal poem, the generations tumble one into other as a family travels through time, past, present and future, trying to find its way. AQ

Bryan R. Monte – AQ20 Autumn 2017 Book Reviews

AQ20 Autumn 2017 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Rob Jacques, War Poet, Sibling Rivalry Press ISBN 978-1-943977-29-1, 118 pages.
Seth Pennington, Tertulia, Sibling Rivalry Press, ISBN 978-1-943977-37-6, 45 pages.
Kenneth Pobo, Loplop in a red city, Circling Rivers Press, ISBN 978-1-939530-03-5, 102 pages.
Nonnie Augustine, To See Who’s There, CreateSpace, ISBN 978-1-545137-94-9, 75 pages.

This quarter I received four extraordinary poetry books in my mailbag that I’d like to recommend without reservation to my readers. Each is striking in its approach to poetry and each adds something new to this genre.

The first book is War Poet by retired seaman Rob Jacques. With its striking cover painting of a naked WWII gunner who stripped to rescue a fellow seaman and then, still naked, returned to man his post, this book will certainly grab readers attention in bookstores—and the poems inside will certainly keep it. This book of 60 poems, some formal and rhymed and others in free verse, explore the various ways gay seamen lived and loved from Vietnam through “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to Guantanamo. Jacques describes the camaraderie he enjoyed with fellow seamen, as a new recruit and at the Naval Academy, uniforms, rank and power relationships, life onboard ship (including seascapes and starry night watches) and getting away on shore leave to have sex.

War Poet contains many important details relevant to both gay and straight seamen over several eras. “Crossing the Line” describes a Vietnam-era, new recruit’s naval rite of passage on his first equatorial crossing: how he is forced to “eat slop,” and later have “kissed the Royal Baby’s belly/smeared with axle grease, swum in muck, and sung smutty songs.” before he can “join/the Solemn mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep.” “Russian Captain of the First Rank” describes the poet’s shipboard meeting with a Russian captain presumably during détente. “Thoughts on a Suicide Bomber’s Cowardice” and “Washing My Enemy’s Feet” describe the medical treatment and compassion shown to enemy bombers who failed or even injured themselves during the Gulf Wars. In the first poem the poet writes: “strange thing sitting here/handcuffed, chained, stripped bare. How easy/ it’d be to send you back…they would surely kill you.” He ends the poem, however, grateful there wasn’t loss of life on either side.

However, it’s poems such as, “Love Call of a US Navy Frigate,” “Unrequited,” “Days of 1968,” “Undertow” and “In Memoriam for James J. Williams” that chronicle the toll of gay seamen’s double lives: marriages of convenience, sex with strangers in strange ports, alcoholism, and a suicide. “In Memoriam” is about a nineteen-year-old sailor’s tragic situation that, as the title continues, “Unable to Choose Between the Person He Loved and the US Naval Academy, Chose Neither.” In “Days of 1968” Jacques describes a seaman “onwatch, when ashore, for more men like me; loyal to a fault/clean, buff always unconsciously on the hunt for another guy” but unfortunately, as in “Undertow,” men “who could never kiss.” “Love Call of a U.S. Navy Frigate” and “Unrequited” describe the tension of being attracted to a married man or one who would not return the poet’s affection.

Fortunately for the reader there are a few happy endings including the book’s first dedication to the poet’s partner and his poem “Meditation While On a Broad Reach” which describes how the poet survived in such a world of shifting political and sexual policies using the metaphor of a boat to tack against them, and at the same time, capture their energy to propel his boat, and thus himself, forward.

In addition to poems about his personal experience in the navy, there are also poems with a general historical resonance. “Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen Reflects” refers to the inquiry into the Pueblo surrender to North Korea in the late ’60s, “Love Call of the Last Great Auk,” the extinction of that large North Atlantic seabird by mariner hunters in the 1840s and of course “Lines for Horace Bristol’s Photo of a Naked WWII PBY Blister Gunner,” the origin of the image of the naked serviceman depicted on the book’s cover.

All in all, War Poet is excellent combination of poetry and gay and naval history. Due to the depth of its expression and the universality of its themes, this is a book that anyone who has ever gone to sea will be interested in. It should certainly be in every LGBTQ library.

Tertulia is the title of a slim, 16-poem, pocket-sized chapbook by Sibling Rivarly Press editor, Seth Pennington. Its title refers to a Spanish term for a salon of writers and artists. It is a poetic exploration of various aspects of his relationship with his partner and their relationship to art. These poems have dense imagery that changes quickly and/or is piled up layer upon layer as if they were a series of Abstract Impressionist paintings.

The book begins autobiographically and conventionally stylistically but with a rather unconventional story. In “Nellie Mae” a woman, the poet’s mother, thought to be barren, adopts two children to keep her husband. Then, miraculously gives birth to a third, the poet, who in kind, brings his mother into his home in her last years. This poem and the next, “Let the Earth Have Him,” reflect the poet’s religious upbringing, and the struggle between the spiritual and the material, “dirt” signifying gay sex. The poet’s occupation as an undertaker keeps him close to this recurring corporeal/non-corporeal tension in the next poem, “Do Not Resuscitate” which is the scene of a vehicular suicide. Keeping his professional distance, the poet describes the suicide as “Bone-faced and bitter/orange skin stretched taut.” He mentions “a near empty Black Label bottle…in the pocket of his Denim jacket” and “a wallet, a letter and three more: //D//N/R//…down a chest whiter than comfort allows.” This very precise description of a fatal automobile collision puts the reader both in the driver’s seat and in the observer’s head.

“Skin” explores the sensuosity of the poet’s relationship to his partner. The poem contains some interesting and implicit poetic comparisons. The “day’s coffee” and “his own musk,” his partner’s “lips against my skin” followed by “whispering to a sleeping moth,” “love” a “new skin, … your lips broke open.”

The poem “Some birthday” describes six birthday photos recording their gay and lesbian friends and partners, quoting gay poets, and at the same time, the artistic denial of the poet’s partner that these are not able to capture him: “I AM NOT IN THE POEMS/AND NOW NOT THE POEM!!!!!!” the poet himself also “always doubting.” “Birch Coffee” continues the corporeal/non-corporeal debate adding temporality. We “have lost control and time/which only exists in watches.” The poet laments: “How can I make you understand/you are more to me than a body,”

The chapbook’s title poem is a remembrance of a romance of two partners, one a Chilean, whose cheeks bloomed like “great roses” while the poet sat with them and his own partner and heard “music in the park grow into a grand piano.” Tragically in the next stanza, “Mauricio’s homeland, his Chile, felt his pulse, took him for soil, sent you away: holding onto Proust:” the partner left behind not being able to find Mauricio’s spirit again at a Frank O’Hara festival on Fire Island. Here Pennington shows the power of his poetry, in these phrases’ rhythm and the reintroduction of the temporality leitmotif.

I’m glad “Tertulia” mentions O’Hara because the size of this book and its content remind me of O’Hara’s reference in “A Step Away from Them” to another small, slim volume. He writes: “My heart is in my/pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy” before which he has happily enjoyed Manhattan’s sights, sounds, smells and music on his lunch break. I feel the same as I enjoy Amsterdam on an atypically sunny Sunday afternoon, after Quaker meeting and a quick visit to the Rijksmuseum’s Honour Gallery whilst waiting for AQ’s monthly tertulia to begin at the Stadsschouwburg cafe on the Leidseplein. Across the square, young Apple Store shoppers tumble down the glass staircase, ecstatic like religious fanatics, that, with their new devices, they’ll be able to send and share their work up in the Cloud, whilst two large neon glasses of beer atop another building magically refill, draw close to toast and empty, blue and white trams clang by, and fire jugglers entertain tourists just outside my window as I feel the weight of Pennington’s Tertulia in my breast pocket. I think you too will enjoy Tertulia and will appreciate life a little bit more, wherever you live, once you’ve read it.

A third, outstanding book is Kenneth Pobo’s Loplop in a red city. This is a collection of 66 poems about familiar (“The Third of May” by Goya and “Van Gogh’s Crows”) and less familiar (“Hubbub” by Emily Bridgwater and “Dog Come Here into the Dark House” by Leonora Carrington) artworks. In Loplop Pobo conveys different media and painting styles in his collection in deft poetic strokes and short lines using just the right words. From Van Gogh to Margritte from Picaso to Max Ernest, Pobo’s short, carefully crafted lines refer imaginatively and clearly to what’s on the canvas and/or the feeling or mood it creates for the viewer.

Loplop is divided into three sections: “Crow at Daybreak,” “Get Far Enough Out” and “Giraffe Mask.” The first section’s poems are dominated by Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. Pobo’s poem “Vincent Van Gogh” contains a six-part poetic mini-biography of Van Gogh’s life. “Van Gogh’s Crows” refers to one of his last paintings “Wheat Field with Crows” (1890) in which the crows “took his body up to heaven—… a small flock got him there…black wings//perfect for mourning.” This first section’s ekphrastic poems contain images or direct references to conflagration, execution, brokenness, unfulfillment, and death, among other weighty topics, inspired by the paintings of Marianne von Werefkin, Gabriele Munter, Penelope Rosemont, Howard Hodgkin and Girogio de Chirico respectively. This is very interesting and unconventional selection that sent me to an art library to further enjoy what Pobo describes.

“Get Far Enough Out” starts with “Loplop Introduces Loplop,” after a painting by Max Ernst called “Loplop Introduces Himself.” Pobo’s writes: “I have a painting to show you/It’s the real me.//Or it was when I painted it.”, perhaps referring to the artist’s transformation as (s)he creates. He continues probing the issue of the authorship of a work of art: “Does it matter/who signs what? Maybe while//painting.” Then in the second half he reintroduces the themes of disintegration and death: “in death my feathers will travel/will enter the world in ways/I never could—.” The musings of this “Half bird/half man,” continue in the next poem, “Loplop” which describes the falling apart of the body and a “surrender … (like) a hot balloon” to some sort of “not bird, not human,” … “free.” In “Loplop introduces a Young Girl” Pobo describes, based Max Ernest painting, an imaginary, thousand year old young girl with a “scepter/ made of sleeping hurricanes,” who makes tomato soup for Death.

In “Triumphal Entry,” Pobo depicts James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels,” where He arrives unnoticed by a crowd of people more concerned about “another star’s trial” and “fire sales, credit debit,/ and investments.” Discouraged he goes to “a nearby gay bar,/and visits friends who/buy him a drink/and invite him to judge/the Mr. Leatherman competition.” He also has a “Kurt Schwitters” poem where the artist remarks: “When critics say my art stinks/I add them to my trash piles and make a collage.” Schwitters also hails “the trash man, his truck/transporting glorious muck.” Another humorous sexual reference can be found in “Parade Amoureuse,” after a painting by Francis Picaba. Here the poet writes: “Love, so outdated, I find it/only in resale shops” and at the end of the poem “remembering sex/in a Butte motel, barn owls/barking in the pines.”

The third section, “Giraffe Mask,” includes poems whose vantage point is mostly surrealistic and whose descriptions, I feel, sometimes even exceed the inspiration of the original paintings they seek to describe. Most noteworthy in this section are “Giraffe on Fire,” “The Red City,” and “Marcel Duchamp” about paintings by Salvador Dali, Paul Delvaux and Marchel Duchamp respectively. Here his poetic imagery changes quickly. In “Giraffe on Fire’” the poet relates a dream in which he finds himself in grade school, but as a “grown up” trying “to fit myself/behind the desk.” He then describes the teacher: “a man made of step ladders/and spoons,” who “made me/shallow mud. I work up, poured coffee.” In “The Red City” the poet moves swiftly and deftly from images of “ruin,” “bones that have shed gender” to “an androgyne,” to the “Sky” and “death” in just the first two stanzas. The next and last two stanzas include “the meaning of life… which hasn’t yet been/put in a zoo.” and ends with a reference to the wisdom of evolution: “the skeleton who shops/at only the best Ideas.” Pobo’s poem “Marcel DuChamp” even though it doesn’t refer to “Nude Descending a Staircase,” but DuChamp’s larger oevre, nonetheless, replicates the many planes of the cubist painting as his characteristically short lines helically descend down the page. This is a special delight since most of Pobo’s previously poems have been concerned with imagery and philosophy and not radical typographic presentation.

In lieu of my above analysis, I feel LopLop in a red city is an ideal book for an ekphrastic poetry-writing workshop. Pobo and Circling Rivers should be very pleased with this fine book and promote it actively for use in college writing programmes.

Nonnie Augustine’s To See Who’s There, is a book of poetry and prose that spans many styles, subjects and historical periods. The book is organized into four sections, each with a quote from an Emily Dickenson poem. The first section, “The Moon slides down the stair—to see who’s there,” includes a poem about the poet’s current domestic life, “December 14, 2016”; her early love for dance that was deeper than her parents’ love for each other, “The Most Beautiful Lady”; a failed relationship, “My Early Thirties”; an Abecederian about her family history, the book’s title poem; a great-aunt’s belief in later generations of women, “Otillie Augustine Speaks To Me”; and many meditations on who and where she is due to her ancestors’ fortitude, stubbornness, constitution, and their wise and foolish decisions.

The second section, “A Deed Knocks First At Thought,” is a set of family history poems prefaced by a Charlie Hebdoe massacre elegy, “Wednesday late, Friday early.” This poem uses repetitive sounds, personal observations, news reports, and Internet information about arms, especially the Kalisnikov rifle, to make its point: “Shoot. Cartoon. Oooo sounds./Bad moon rising.” Later in the poem Augustine writes: “I am not a political poet./We are all political poets./Take a breath. Take several./Take away the K-guns from their grips.” Graywolf Press executive editor, Jeffrey Shotts, praised this poem after its first public reading in 2015. This political elegy and the personal genealogical poems that follow, reflect Augustine’s poetic dexterity and reach. In thirteen pages she goes from contemporary Paris to medieval Northumbria, 19th century Ireland and Liverpool, and 20th century Austria and America. Her poems’ characters experience murder, hunger, betrayal, rejection, insanity, suicide, war-related disability, and the occasional turn of good fortune such as election to public office. Katherine Eulallie, in a poem of the same title says: “I’ve gotten through the Depression, two goddamn wars, the death of a child and Harry’s stomach cancer… I can damn sure get the hang of being old.”

The trans-continental, trans-centurial poems continue in the book’s third section, “A Charm invests a face” with poems from 17th century France and New France (Quebec), 15th century Spain, 19th century Vienna, and 20th century New York City which follow each other seamlessly and address the subjects of love and fortunes won or lost, alcoholism, families relations both distant and present which are shining examples for anyone wanting to capture their family history.

The last section, “‘Faith’ is a Fine Invention,” describes different expressions of belief and disbelief such as a Druid solstice ceremony, a deathbed confession, a closeted, gay, Catholic great uncle, and a relative who never lets the priest come to administer the last rights. The collection ends with a Joycean prose coda “The Piano Players Dead Rejoice (or so I Hear)” reminiscent of “The Dead.” To See Who’s There is a book of poetry that masterfully bridges the centuries of Augustine’s family history on two continents and seven countries seamlessly. It is certainly a model for what collections of genealogical poems can be. AQ

Bryan R. Monte – AQ19 Summer 2017 Art Reviews

AQ19 Summer 2017 Art Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Edward Krasinski Retrospective, Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, 24 June to 15 October 2017.
Rineke Dijkstra Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, 20 May to 8 August 2017.

The Thin Blue Line

As an art critic, I am sometimes seen as the thin blue line between what is art and what may be variously described as kitsch, empty, repeated stylistic or signature gestures or just plain hype. For me, important art is something sublime, revolutionary and/or transgressive, which stirs theists’ souls or atheists’ psyches and which must be encouraged and protected. As a critic with preview and privileged access to some new, Amsterdam art exhibitions and sometimes their artists, I consider it my duty to guide both my Dutch and foreign resident readers to where they can best spend their time. Sometimes, as is the case with this review of the Edward Krasinski Retrospective at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, my review is mixed as I found some elements of this exhibition praiseworthy, whilst others unfortunately left me cold.

Krasinski was part of an experimental, minimalist art movement in Poland from the 1960s to the 2000s. His tiny studio and apartment was a gathering place for the Polish avant-garde. His “trademark” was his use of 12 mm., blue electrical tape that ran through most of his work (and sometimes that of others) continued on the walls of his studio at exactly 130 cm. This divided the standard wall of approximately 260 cm. into two planes: above and below. Sometimes, as in his Intervention series paintings from the 1970s to the 1990s, the blue line is incorporated into the planes and dimensionality of the geometric shapes themselves, going into the sides and corners of the three dimensional objects and then out the back of the artwork and then back onto the wall. These pure geometric shapes with many planes certainly reminds me of Piet Mondriaan’s later work, after he had abandoned Impressionism and Cubism for his own Constructivism and also that of Kazimir Malevich, both of whose work is well-represented in the Stedelijk’s permanent collection. In addition to this perspective-challenging gimmick, the Krasinski exhibition also contains earlier work from the 1960s before the omnipresent thin, blue line. These mixed media sculptures and mobiles, incorporating scrap metal, wood and other found objects, are evocative not only due to their combinations and surfaces, but also due to the shadows they create on a wall when a light is shone on them as they move. These works are indeed are economical, whimsical and multi-faceted. In addition, the last gallery of the exhibition contains an archive of selected documents, especially photographs, correspondence and sketches that add a historical dimension to the exhibition. For example, there is a letter from Nelson Rockefeller’s art collection curator, requesting information about acquiring Krasinski’s Number 7, 1967 on exhibition then at the Guggenheim Museum.

However, since this is a travelling retrospective, which is making its second stop after the Tate Liverpool, the exhibition contains a lot more installations, artwork and even a reconstruction of part of the artist’s tiny Warsaw studio which unfortunately left me feeling a bit cold. The gallery called Labyrinth with its hanging mirrors with blue tape through them reflecting the faces of the exhibition’s viewers and also the backs of other mirrors felt like something I’d seen before in student art shows wanting to exploit the voyeurism related to art appreciation. Another gallery which featured Krasinski’s blue cord sculptures for the Tokyo Biennial also didn’t seem to me to be such a radical extension of, nor as effective as, his blue-taped wall trademark since they don’t seem to be geometrically transgressive. Lastly his reconstructed studio, whilst cluttered with archival papers and photos, didn’t really seem to shed much light for me on his modus operandi. I realise that being an artist in Cold War Poland required sacrifices both related to being unable to make challenging political statements and having access to proper materials, but I don’t see how this reconstructed studio brings this to light. I do, however, understand how this repressive impoverished environment created absurdist artwork such as Tadeusz Kantor’s black and white photo entitled Panoramic Sea Happening of Krasinski at the beach standing on a step ladder with an audience in beach chairs, conducting the waves and how other parts of the exhibition I have mentioned above, do bring this, if only tangentially, to light.

Youth

If however, you are able to make it to the Stedelijk before 8 August, and perhaps need a break from the Krasinski exhibition, you will be lucky to view some of Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s work including a few series of photographic portraits of young people and some video works. Dijkstra has made her name as an artist by being able to capture seemingly spontaneous moments in young people’s lives whether it be in a park or at the beach or the transformation of a new recruit to battle-hardened soldier. Her photos and videos capture the permanent, youthful, artistic springtime mentioned in John Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Dijkstra’s children and young adults, are depicted in moments of society and solitude that fade or change almost as soon as the photos are taken. For example her Park Series includes one photo of two young men and two young women sitting on a lawn between trees with water in the background in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark on a rare sunny day. One youth sits up looking slightly cross while the other is reclining and on the point of laughing. This photo reminds me of Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe only the young women are fully clothed, maintaining the transitory adolescent air of innocence. Dijkstra is famous for some of her other classical references such as her photo of a female in a yellow swimsuit, Kolobrzg, Poland, July 26, 1992, her hair and pose similar to that of Botecelli’s Birth of Venus. In another series, Olivier, Quartier Viénot, Marseilles, mentioned above, Dijkstra captures the transformation of a fresh, young recruit to hardened, battle-ready soldier (including one photo with face camouflage and fatigues and another in dress uniform) over three years.

The most engaging piece of this exhibit, however, is the video triptych, I Can See A Woman Crying, (2009) in which a group of Liverpudlian children in their red, white and grey school uniforms first describe hesitantly and cautiously their ideas about what is happening in Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Women. Their discussion picks up pace and volume as they become more engaged and feel freer to express themselves reaching a natural crescendo towards the end of the video’s 12 minutes. The spontaneity of the children’s responses is also aided by the slightly asynchronous depiction of what is said before the young speaker is shown and the speakers are shuffled from one to another of the three video screens. This a fresh and engaging video piece, worth the journey alone to the museum. I hope you have the opportunity to view it. AQ

Bryan R. Monte – AQ19 Summer 2017 Book Reviews

AQ19 Summer 2017 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Gary Beck. Tremors. Winter Goose Publishing. ISBN 978-1-941058-64-0, 108 pages.
Kate Foley. Electric Psalms. Shoestring Press. ISBN 978-1-910323-55-7, 164 pages.
Susan E. Lloy. But When We Look Closer. Now or Never Publishing. ISBN 978-1-988098-25-8, 181 pages.
Scott T. Starbuck. Hawk on Wire. Ecopoems. Fomite Press. ISBN 978-1-944388-05-8, 76 pages.

The books in this review are from mature writers in the latter phases of their careers, who I feel are all involved in restating and/or summing up some of their most important concerns and discoveries. These writers have all done their preparatory and developmental work and have had time to refine their style and approach effectively for maximum impact. Their new books reflect the wisdom of their observations and the effectiveness of their techniques.

Scott T. Starbuck’s Hawk on Wire poetry collection is the type the world needs in order to save the planet from wide-spread, lasting ecological destruction. They are poems by a man who has written about his love of nature and his concerns about climate change, species extinction and our planet’s ecological destruction for years even though these subjects are still not part of every writing programme’s curriculum. (I remember writing instructors in the mid-1980s, who felt they needed to stop me from embarrassing myself writing about the beginning of the AIDS crisis which they told me “might not turn out to be so bad.”)

In “Punch Bowl Hike Meditation,” Starbuck writes “For 30 years / I’ve talked to myself / about climate change / but now most everyone is.” His poems show the effect of this type of prescient solipsism on a man, a type of prophecy that is almost as old as the ancients he mentions in his next poem, “Wind Spirit,” first published in Amsterdam Quarterly in 2016. The Wind Spirit asks a person one question: “How will you save the community of species on earth?” and tells him/her each time she/he answers incorrectly, she/he will lose a finger. So in search of wisdom, this person tries to consult the “smart” coyote, the “king salmon” with “a bright red soul,” an eagle with its “unerring vision” among other majestic, powerful, well-travelled animals. Unfortunately, after ten days this person finds that these animals and their wisdom are all dead and he/she has no fingers left.

In “Conundrum” Starbuck writes about “Martha, the last passenger pigeon / who died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.” In “Indian Boy” the speaker asks him: “There was a lake here with fish. Where is it?” and in “Message From Far Way” the poet laments “When people lost trees / they lost the ability to think // and minds were filled / by money locusts.” Starbuck laments not only the loss of trees, but also in “Initiation Poem” that, according to David W. Orr, “Young people can recognise over 1,000 corporate logos but only a handful plants and animals native to their places.”

On the positive side, Starbuck offers some solutions to climate change. One poem with suggestions is “How We Stopped Corporate Psychopaths From Cooking Planet Earth” in which he imagines “’Destroy Your Television Day’” grew more popular/than Xmas and the 4th of July.” and a major oil company is renamed “BlueOrbSolar.” Starbuck’s poems also describe his love for the natural world’s beauty, albeit a world that is quickly disappearing. He continues to write about his passion for fishing in secluded streams and his observation and his admiration of great birds such as the bald eagle, the horned owl and the hawk on (a) wire, from his title poem, who continue to observe and wisely avoid him and other humans.

More realistically chilling, however, Starbuck’s “Thoughts at the End of Empire,” echo somewhat my concern about the lack of AIDS awareness and education in schools and colleges in the mid-1980s: “It’s possible that education will change / from locking children in boxes / to getting them outside in tide pools, / rivers, creeks, deserts, mountains. // It’s also possible, based on our collective / behavior, there won’t be future generations.” Hawk on Wire is a powerful poetry collection worth reading and discussing—especially in writing programmes.

Susan Lloy’s But When We Look Closer is a collection of short stories that describes what happens when some druggy, former ’70s punkers are forced to move back home, to a rest home or other institutions for their own safety. These stories—the dark side of the Sid and Nancy generation—revolve around the subjects of sex, drugs, music, art, money, and mental illness. In addition, Lloy writes about people who are finally freed to pursue their artistic and erotic interests whether this be through finally having a permanent roof over their heads, receiving an inheritance or winning the lottery.

These stories, some no longer than a page, often have snap, but always credible endings. For example in “Where To,” a woman who takes a cab to a bar planning to kill her unfaithful lover. She decides not to, though, after a conversation with her Afghan cabbie, who describes how he ended up stranded up in a country, whose military accidentally killed his family. In “Dylan’s Roost” the young bookstore owner, whose shop provides a comfortable haven for both a rich author and a schizophrenic homeless man, is not rescued from financial peril due to his hard work or his good deeds. There is no karma, no payoff for good deeds, but plenty of financial practicalities in the Lloy’s fictional world.

The type of short stories I especially enjoy, those written about the same characters over a space of several decades, are also represented in this collection by “Close Kin” and “Dutch Lite.” In the first story, the main character, Margaret, then a twenty-something, an art school student, is involved in a three-way with Dutch twin brothers, Theo, a violinist, and Joop, an artist, in Amsterdam. She forms a formal relationship with one to stay in the Netherlands, but later their chaotic ménage trois, in which one man was like “the cold Atlantic greets the warm waters of the Indian ocean,” leads to a tearful breakup and Margaret handing her Dutch identity (indefinite stay) card to a Brussels’ airport customs official. Fast forward years later and in “Dutch Lite” Margaret has literally won the lottery and recently purchased a canal house in Amsterdam’s Jordaan district from where she can hear the Westerkerk’s chimes. However, as Thomas Wolff famously warned, “you can’t go home again,” and she finds her two previous lovers distant and in more permanent relationships than she had with them even though she offers them both space in her new home to practice music and paint with no strings attached. Her efforts to meet a new man also fail due to her being less than forthcoming about why she’s in Amsterdam, afraid her new beau might be attracted to her for just her money. When he also rejects her, she finally realises she, as many of her Lloy’s characters, can’t live in the past or, even with enough money, recreate it in the present.

The Canadian and Quebecois references in Lloy’s book also made it interesting to this American, permanent-resident of the Netherlands, who rarely ventured North of Niagara Falls. Lloy describes life in Canada’s French-speaking province and capital as well as its British maritime provinces. She describes apartments along Quebec’s grand avenues and her characters familiar, urban angst of having to look for flats after the buildings, in which they’ve lived for decades, go condo. Her stories set along the coast include those about recently deceased relatives and being party to the suicide of a terminally-ill, local fisherman and childhood friend. They are also about the relatives and friends who attend these funerals and/or spread their loved ones’ ashes along the shore where they will be near familiar rocky coasts and migratory whale routes.

Lloy’s description of mental illness, especially schizophrenia and its relationship to art, is also a distinctive feature of these stories. In “Even Sad Dogs Smile,” Lloy describes the “meds” that prevented Daleighla’s, her main character’s, schizophrenic episodes so she wouldn’t try to destroy the bathroom sink to stop the noise coming from its drain, but which also “clouded her head” so she could no longer create remarkable and edgy paintings and drawings. One episode is announced by her dog, Romeo, who suddenly says: “Give it over, you greedy, tight-fisted bitch,” as she offers him a piece of her sandwich. Tragically, after struggling for years to be represented by a gallery, just as she is accepted, she has another episode in which she destroys most of her work and when she comes back to herself, can’t create anything new that’s as good.

Lloy’s But When We Look Closer is a unique collection of short stories set in North America and Europe where he characters struggle with drugs, sex, art, money, mental illness and, most importantly, loss. As in life, so as in her fiction, Lloy’s characters discover too late that they can’t really change themselves, (even through plastic surgery,) or their past.

The next book I’d like to recommend for this summer is Gary Beck’s Tremors, a very generous collection of 104 poems. As will be familiar to readers of my previous reviews, what nature and climate change are to Starbuck, eroticism and social commentary are to Beck. The book’s epigraph by Apollinaire about ‘having known all kinds, who didn’t fullfil their destinies’ announces Beck’s socially-aware poetic view towards the close of his life which reverberates throughout Tremors. His first poem, “Entropy” is concerned with the passage of time and his desire to “accomplish/anything meaningful/in remaining days.” In “From the Terrace” he compares himself to an elderly lizard/hulking on a heating rock.” In poems such as “Dementia” “Ailment,” “Trapped,” “Summons,” “Question,” “Last Gasp,” and “Tempus” the theme of ageing is described through various metaphors and from different perspectives.

Other poems criticise the wielders of artistic, social or financial power. In “Middle Class Poets” he scorns the “bloated poets,”…“sneering” at “the world” because of their “protective cloak of tenure…mumbling impotent objections”. In “Past Sighting”, the poet “saw a processional of faces / loved ones I have known and lost”. In “Futilism” he ponders power and observes “Castles are only safe/from marauders / when built on hilltops” and that they are only maintained by “oppressive power / harshly inflicted/on diverse vassals.” Perhaps timely food-for-thought for the current, Microserf, pre-robotic generation. In his very short poem, “Free Will,” Beck refers to destiny again: “The lines of destiny / in my troubled life / have never been as thin, as crossing, or not crossing,/ the next street / turning the next corner / expecting discoveries.” In “Errata” he “fondle(s) old mistakes” and shows “hopes…curdled / by too much desire / for material things.”

In Tremors, the poet finds an uneasy respite in literature and sex. In poems such as “Lust Song” and “Inspiration,” Beck refers to “the tender lust of power, / dreaming you perfect” and “Praise for reawakenings.” In “Woman” he pines: “I can do without you no longer”.

His less frequent and more unusual poems include the picturesque and informative “Mallorca” with its beautiful description of the island and its history and “Hitchhiking North” in which the poet bathes in a pond and leaves feeling the “water’s pure deliverance.” It’s a pity there’s not more of this type of poetry in this collection. Perhaps because this deliverance is brief, as the tremors mentioned in his poems “Detached” “I lie beside your tremors / silent, hoping to endure” and in “Ianamorata” “When last my fingers, / gripped hard to your flesh, / squeezed until my tremors burst,” quickly return Beck to his primary modes of eroticism and critical social observation.

In Tremors, Beck has written a generous, poetic collection, from which readers will certainly find at least a some poems that will deliver a few mindquakes.

Electric Psalms, new and selected poems is British-born poet and Amsterdam-resident Kate Foley’s latest book. Its first eight sections contain many of Foley’s more well-known and previously published poems from her first collection, Soft Engineering, to her most recent, The Don’t Touch Garden, the latter of which was reviewed in AQ14, in autumn 2015. The ninth section includes 27 new poems with subjects as wide-ranging as pre-, natural and recorded history, being a linguistic ex-pat, dangerous Amsterdam cyclists, ageing, Quaker meeting, an artist’s unstoppable urge to create, and the evolution and possible end of humankind. In 28 pages, Foley explores these subjects and more with her keen sense of observation. In poems such as “To Write a Natural History, “What I Once Knew,” “Squirreling — Or An Archaeology of Memory,” she zooms in on the words that “lie in the cave of our mouths,” or “the spider on the back gate / (that) drew a marvellous / map with silk, / a living harp / to sing winged creatures in” and “All the lives you touched live on walls,” respectively. “My Humble Body,” “Why is Patinated OK,” and “What I Once Knew” are all about ageing, “from The Other Side of Sleep” about dying and “Washing the Dead” about death. Though some poems contain the same subjects, each creates a different mood, by using a different structure, style and set of metaphors.

Most interesting are Foley’s poems about life in Amsterdam. These include “A Different Psalm” about Amsterdam Quaker Meeting, “The Collective Noun for Bicycles” and the book’s title poem, “Electric Psalms.” The last two are about the city’s seemingly mad cyclists who are a law onto themselves. In “Electric Psalms,” Foley describes cyclists who “whirr (past) like demented coffee grinders.” She marvels at the torrent of helmet-less cyclists, “Helmets? Ha!” some wearing “high heels” or with “mobile phones…clamped to one ear.” In “Electric Psalms” it’s “Traffic lights? Ha!” or bikes with “no brakes,” or cyclists who “Text as you ride?” all of which captures the hurly-burly of living in central Amsterdam.

There are also poems about music and musicians reflecting the influence of the nearby Concertgebouw on Foley’s life. In “Borrowing the Old Man’s Shoes” she describes how Beethoven “stepped out of his carriage to write music on the road.” In “Tuning the Brook with Stones,” she writes of the music water makes as it goes downstream.

Foley even includes an apocryphal poem set in the Netherlands entitled “After It’s Over.” In the poem she asks what will happen: “when all the restored windmills / have broken loose…when Facebook turns the same / tired page tirelessly, / and all the ringtones of the world / sing in polyphony?” Her solution to this domesday scenario and one of the keys to her poetic perspective as a trained midwife and scientist is “to celebrate / the grief of elephants, / their ivory yellow sadness, / the scattered far-flung / molecules of belief.”
AQ

Bryan R. Monte – AQ18 Spring 2017 Art Review

AQ18 Spring 2017 Art Review
by Bryan R. Monte

Ed van der Elksen – Camera in Love/De Verliefde Camera, Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum

At the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, one can currently view the one of largest retrospectives of photographer and filmmaker Ed van der Elsken’s work in 25 years. The exhibition entitled: Ed van der Elksen – Camera in Love/De Verliefde Camera is open until 28 May 2017.

Van Der Elksen (1925-1990) photographed the cityscapes and people of Paris (in the 1950s), Amsterdam (in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s), and Hong Kong and Tokyo (in ’60s and ’70s). He also went off to Africa and around the world by boat to photograph people in remote and less Western locations in the late 1950s. The Stedelijk, which has the largest collection of Van Der Elksen’s work, has assembled a very comprehensive, longitudinal exhibition of both his photos and films and presented them in a very aesthetically sensitive, yet educational manner.

Museum director, Beatrix Ruf said at the press conference that Van Der Elsken was a Dutch photographer who “experimented with photos and film in ways that capture the moment, that tell stories in ways that are really intense.” For example, Van Der Elksen’s Paris photos of the 1950s have a very dark and grainy quality that Elsken used to show the gritty quality of its post-WWII café society. Van Der Elsken studied sculpture in the Netherlands in the 1940s and these sharp, sculptural edges can be seen in his black and white photos from the ’50s. He also, like Weegee, was fascinated by crime in the big city and the exhibition includes photos of two French gendarmes taking a man away, their arms under his shoulders, as well as a full-length, group portrait of Japanese Yakuza reminiscent of some of the guild and schutters portraits in the Rijksmuseum and Haarlem’s Franz Hals Museum.

The exhibition is divided physically into two sections: an inner ring and an outer ring. The inner ring has 200 of Van Der Elsken’s photographs hung on white walls. It includes photos from the 1950s to the 1980s in black and white and colour and displays Van Der Elksen’s various photographic techniques and changing subject matter—from cityscapes and people to concentrating more on the urban personalities in his later work. The darker outer ring includes about a dozen films, some slides and many contact sheets, notes on how he would crop or expose his shots, as well as historical and biographical information. One short film records what was left of the Jewish ghetto in the 1950s. When I first came to the Netherlands, I asked what had happened to the Jewish Quarter and I was told by more than one person most of it had fallen in due to the construction of the underground Metro line (which was opposed with much protest in the late ’60s/early ’70s as is memorialised on the walls of the Nieuwmarkt station, near the centre of the former Jewish neighbourhood). This, however, is clearly not true according to Van Der Elsken’s film with the subtitle “Demolition Jewish Quarter” which shows the neighbourhood with some overgrown, vacant lots but with still many derelict or abandoned buildings with boarded up windows still standing, one of which is being scavenged for wooden beams.

This section also includes a variety of photos, short films and a slide show from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The earliest film is about Van Der Elksen’s sponsored world journey and in one scene, shows his cabin hung with rolls of developed film. Another staged scene shows two lovers in a convertible automobile being awakened by cows in a field. There is a set of photos from Central Africa from 1957-58 featuring people in traditional dress and face paint performing rituals, and hunting. “Eye Love You,” also the name of Van Der Elsken’s first, colour photobook from 1977, includes, according to the museum,: “hippies, nude beaches, couples having sex, and Indian transvestites” contrasted with “the poor and their struggle for survival.” “Tokyo Symphony,” is an unfinished project due to Van Der Elksen’s illness about that city including slides of the fishmarket, a religious ceremony, demonstrations, and as usual, Van Der Elsken’s regulars—the beautiful and the fringe and alternative types. One of the most interesting presentations of Van Der Elsken’s work in this dark ring is the projection of four films simultaneously on the four sides of a cube, each of which can be enjoyed separately or two simultaneously.

Van Der Elksen records Amsterdam in all its iconic glory including an auto being fished out of a canal, people dancing in a cafe to a live band, prostitutes in the red light district, mini-skirted women in high heels crossing the Dam, punks with spiky hair and safety pins through their ears, young men and women in designer clothes sitting outside at a cafe, emaciated junkies, and the obligatory hippie birth and sex videos of that era. Many of the photos and films of this period were captured by Van Der Elsken as he roamed the city centre in his specially-designed, open car with rollbars to steady his camera, as if he were a naturalist filmmaker in a Range Rover capturing wildlife on the Serengeti’s plains. Ed van der Elksen – Camera in Love/De Verliefde Camera is an exhibition one won’t want to miss if you want to learn more about this Dutch photographer and filmmaker and, of course, about Amsterdam.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ18 Spring 2017 Book Reviews

AQ18 Spring 2017 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Jacob M. Appel. The Mask of Sanity. The Permanent Press. ISBN 978-1-57962-495-8, 256 pages.
Jacob M. Appel. The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street. Stories. Howling Bird Press. ISBN 978-0-9961952-1-8, 181 pages.
Lou Gaglia. Sure Things & Last Chances. Spring to Mountain Press. ISBN 978-0-9863490-4-1, 194 pages.

In this issue I continue to review authors published by non-traditional or indie presses who I believe offer more than what the big-five have served up on their spring reading lists. I feel that these three books of indie fiction offer stories that are quirky, yet human; comic, yet profound; fantastic yet realistic. Their authors, though occupying different points of the social spectrum, come to some of the same conclusions about the human spirit groping its way towards safety, love and recognition.

The first book is The Mask of Sanity by Jacob M. Appel, who is interviewed in depth in this issue. This book is about Dr. Jeremy Balint who becomes a sociopathic serial killer (the reader initially thinks) in order to cover the final murder of his wife, whom he discovers one day, by accident, and unobserved in flagrante delicto with a hospital colleague. On the surface, Dr. Balint looks like a devoted husband, father and physician who appears to be moving up the ladder at the hospital where he works due to his expertise, ambition and a bit of luck. Unfortunately as readers discover, this is not the case. Positions and awards become sometimes ironically available to him due to his cunning, envy and willingness to do anything, even kill strangers, to achieve his endgame.

The characterisation in The Mask of Sanity is excellent; each character has a distinct and believable voice and behaviour. In addition, Balint’s homicidal plans mesh like the gears of a clock until someone leaves the front and back doors of his house open and a neighbourhood toddler wanders in and into the family pool where it drowns. This ultimately leads to the suicide of one of its grief-stricken parents, which could unwittingly unmask Dr. Balint’s murder spree. The Mask of Sanity is full of surprises and will keep the reader wondering if Balint will be caught all the way to the very end of the story.

Appel’s second book, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street. Stories. won the 2016 Howling Bird Press Fiction Award, one of the many fiction awards Appel has been awarded over the past decade. Each of these stories are peopled by a different cast of characters: an elderly couple who discover their prefab retirement home has been delivered to the wrong address; a group of older, suburban women who organise a topless, backyard protest, a dying man who wonders to whom he should his stockpile of antique iron lungs, a starving, middle-age actress who’s trolled by good reviews by a man she rejected for a date in high school; a couple who grapple with pulling the life support plug on their teenage daughter who was bullied into committing suicide. These stories have different characters and settings but all revolve around the issues of bioethics, quality of life, challenging conventional notions and how love, no matter how quirky, can sometimes provide comfort in an uncertain and difficult world. Thematically these stories are deep whilst, at the same time, they are also entertaining. If they don’t move you, challenge your perspective or occasionally make you laugh, then perhaps you should seek professional help.

Lou Gaglia’s Sure Things & Last Chances is a darkly humorous collection of short fiction. Many of its stories are set also in New York, although his characters are working and middle-class bridge and tunnel residents rather than Appel’s Manhattan doctors, psychologists and other urban professionals. A theme similar to both writers, however, is looking for love, although many of Gaglia’s characters are unwilling or unable to take chances, or if they do, find themselves in less than ideal relationships. Some have been abused or bullied as Greg in “Networking” who as a teen was hung over a railing by a boy’s father for tackling his son. Others such as the narrator of “Penance” take out their aggression on competitors by killing ants and then going to confession. Others such as the “Lost in the Woods” protagonist, stumble from one romantic mishap to another. “The Listeners” is a story of two different men’s break ups with women overheard by the narrator in a library. The first, remembered from years ago, was due to a difference in religion. The second is related in the present and due to a girlfriend related her near-death experience to an unbelieving, superficial boyfriend. The narrator in his mind tries to comfort the second woman, even though she’s not there, just part of an unfortunate story: Where did you go? What did you see when you died? I’ll listen. I will., the main character says to himself on his way out of the library. In other stories such as “Almost Like Steve McQueen” Gaglia’s protagonists try to summon false courage to go to the dentist. “Winging It” depict son’s and grandson’s desires not to be like their fathers, the grandson not wanting to be pegged in any profession, versus his father’s desire for the stability of a nine-to-five job after his own father had had so many jobs, his mother “couldn’t name them all in one day.” This typifies the swing of the occupational pendulum over the generations—one generation choosing adventure with risk and the next, security and boredom, after the unstable childhood caused by an adventurous father.

What I find most pleasing in his fiction is that sometimes Gaglia’s stories are also a continuation of an earlier narrative. The shy, 30-something introverted Greg in “Networking” returns years earlier as a physically-abused teenager in “Butch.” This gives Gaglia’s fiction an interesting continuity that is also found in his story “Hunger” when his protagonist thinks later about the Italian waitress, Jeanette, who was kind to him after he was beaten up in “Letters from a Young Poet” in Gaglia’s previous collection, Poor Advice. In fact, there’s quite a lot of working and middle-class, school-of-hard-knocks violence and cruelty in Gaglia’s stories. The kind I remember from my neighbourhood where parents physically “disciplined” their children with belts and boards, and the neighbourhood bullies chased and assaulted anyone weaker or smaller whilst their parents turned a blind eye. Violence was also a part of sports that were played in my neighbourhood, mostly football, baseball and hockey, these matches ending usually when someone was injured. (My reprieve from grammar school football came when my front teeth got chipped and my parents imagined the impending financial pain of future dental bills). It’s the realism of these stories, with their everyman protagonists trying to make sense out of a violent and abusive world and how it arrests their development later in life, which makes these stories all the more compelling.

AQ17 Autumn 2016 Book Reviews

AQ 17 Autumn 2016 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Dig by Bryan Borland, Stillhouse Press, ISBN 978-0-9905169-8-9, 2016, 74 pages.
Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana. Stories by Jacob M. Appel, Black Lawrence Press, ISBN 978-1-62557-953-9, 2016, 2016, 182 pages.
Lost Salmon by Scott T. Starbuck, MoonPath Press, ISBN 978-1-93665-723-0, 2016, 96 pages.

Seldom do I have the opportunity to review three books in the same issue, all of which, I can recommend to my readers unreservedly. This is one of those rare occasions. The three authors and their books above are three of the best, but still relatively “new,” writers. Each has his special areas of interest and unique style for which I believe American writing is that much richer.

The first book Dig, is a collection of poems by writer, editor and publisher Bryan Borland. Borland was recently recognised by the Library of Congress for the contribution of his press, Sibling Rivalry, to American letters. Dig’s poems are primarily about Borland’s life as a gay man living in Midwestern America. The title poem or proem is an invitation to readers to dig “the dirt” about his last “ten years,” his “two dogs,” “past lovers” and his “husband,” about the things each brought to their unique literary relationship “ink…books from other tribes” but “nothing from what we are together.”

The book is divided into three sections: “A Form of that Word,” “These Boys” and “Blood in the Throat.” The first section is about Borland’s long-term relationships with his partner and friends. There are poems about anniversaries, “The Body is a Damn Hard Thing to Kill,” betrayal, both real and imagined, “Weather, This” and “Cheated,” and the remembrance and death of family and friends such as “Walking Through the Fields of Ruin” and “How it Ends.” The second section describes other gay lives; those who did or did not make it; some through suicide such as in “Jumpers” or murder such as “The Significance of Matthew” about Matthew Shepherd’s murder or marriage such as “White handkerchief,” in the series “These Boys” in which Borland writes how his partner’s “Old flames, too, leaking into his dreams/puddles of memory that never quite evaporate.” The third section, “Blood in the Throat,” is perhaps my favourite because it includes poems about poets and writers such as Thom Gunn, “Eat the Whole World,” Ian Young, “From Ian Young,” Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, “This Telepathy is Intrusive,” Christopher Isherwood “Isherwood’s Journals” and William Carlos Williams “This is What It’s Like” and their influences on Borland’s and/or his partner Seth Pennington’s writing.

Three of the poems I wish I’d written myself can be found in this third section. One is “Your Older Brother Gives Me My Name” in which Borland describes his partner’s relatives’ awkwardness about what to call him at a wedding until his partner’s brother says: “he’s my brother-in-law.” Another is “At a Bach Concert” in which just as Borland and his partner walk into a Boston church and “lock arms and start toward the front of the church,/the quartet begins to play the wedding march for/absolutely no reason—and for absolutely every reason.” And lastly, the poem “Rooster” about the puppy that Borland writes: “I grow to love him by the second week, when you and I/have figured out how to touch/one another again.” brings him closer to his partner again.

Dig provides a poetic, honest look at a mature gay relationship. It also demonstrates how, in just a short time, Borland’s poetry has gone from strength to strength since his debut book, My Life as Adam (2010), his subsequent, Less Fortunate Pirates (2012) to Dig (2016) This opinion is confirmed by Borland’s receipt of the 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award.

Jacob M. Appel’s book, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana. Stories is his third collection from Black Lawrence Press. His book Scouting for the Reaper (2014), won the Hudson Prize. (Appel is also an O. Henry Prize winner). Appel is one of American’s best short story writers due to his combination of quirky characters and unexpected, snap endings. Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana merely confirms this reputation.

Appel is a master of characterisation. He seamlessly crawls under the skin of his cast characters, who live and work in various jobs and in various parts of the US. Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana includes stories about a female butcher and her murderous concert violinist sister, an East Coast folk singer celebrity and her very destructive, delinquent grandson, a smallpox scare for two guards on the US Canadian border on a snowy New Years Eve, who think they might be in love, an Oakland, California landlord whose wife leaves him for a mime and then won’t talk to him, two New York parents whose infant suffers from pica and an unfaithful minister who can’t sleep at night because he imagines his dead wife noisily making love downstairs to Greta Garbo are some of the many interesting situations and unusual characters in Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana.

However odd these characters seem, though, they all seem to deal with various common themes: fidelity, the value of continued friendship versus sexual intimacy, the limits of friendships and relationships within and without families, and how these families cope with the bad behavioural genes and patterns that are passed down the generations. Appel explores these themes and problems and comes up with very novel, unexpected, snap solutions usually based more on utilitarianism than lofty philosophy. The focus to detail in these stories about medical and ethical situations and their solutions shows Appel’s own wide range of professional experience as a doctor, bioethicist, professor and writer. In addition, no matter how dark the thematic material, the stories in Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana are written with a sense of wit and humour which propels the reader forward to their uncanny resolutions. Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana proves that Appel is a master of the American short story, (in a somewhat American Gothic, Edgar Allen Poe-like tradition). He explores the depths of human experience in unusual cases while still maintaining a sense of humanity. Coulrophobia’s stories surprise, shock, entertain and challenge.

Scott T. Starbuck latest book of poetry is entitled Lost Salmon and even though all the poems in this collection are about fishing, there is something in this collection to interest just about everyone. One of the most important issues Starbuck depicts relevant to AQ17 is climate (change)/species extinction. Many poems in Lost Salmon would have been ideal for AQ17 had they not previously been published in other journals or were pending publication in this collection which was released a few weeks before AQ17’s own debut. These poems include “Strays” and “At Rocky Creek” about diverted or blocked salmon runs. In “Strays” the “salmon who run up the wrong river,” end up “in ditches, cow pastures, even Hwy 101.” In “At Rocky Creek,” the salmon’s progress is blocked by a concrete wall under which they are “floating belly up.” In the book’s title poem, “Lost Salmon,” Starbuck writes: “I can relate, brother/as I gasp smog,” perhaps to the salmon he’s caught who are “wanting waters with my own kind” and to “just be.”

“In River at 52,” the fisherman in Starbuck knows he needs the river just as much as the salmon: “I know if I can just get to the river, everything will be okay.” He relates the flow of the current to the passage of time and the relatives and partner he’s lost and perhaps the real reason he needs to get to the river after he’s graded “…stack after stack after stack/from men and women who don’t want to write/who force themselves into strange unnatural positions.” (This sentiment is also echoed in “Advice to a Student” in which he gives counsel to get down to the business of poetry: “If you want an audience/go into advertising” and ends this short poem with the advice that a bird “doesn’t wait/ for an audience/ to sing.”)

In “Canyon” and “My River” Starbuck worries how rising temperatures from human-made climate change will destroy some of his favourite fishing spots. Lastly, in “Pigeon,” he initially describes his cynicism about individual efforts to stop climate change as he saves a pigeon left for dead by other fisherman “torn by fishing line” by taking her to the vet:

“A few weeks later when she flew away

it gave me hope against all odds
we can slow a warming climate, rising seas.”

emphasising perhaps his enduring belief in the power of compassion to change things.

The poems in the collection are also about other subjects related to fishing. “Meditation on Emptiness between Universes,” describes the healing, revitalising effect fishing has on Starbuck. It takes him to a place “under evergreen shade and birdsong” where he breakfasts on “hotcakes/and blueberry tea.” A riverside meditation is also included in “Drifting Out of my Body in the Dark Somewhere near Astoria, Oregon.” In this the fisherman expresses his awareness of the interconnectedness of life, “tiny human gill slits/in the womb when all these salmon/were his brothers and sisters.” There are also a few surprises he discovers along the way like in “Underwater Piano and Eagle,” the piano, perhaps abandoned by pioneers, or the two lovers he accidentally stumbles across in “The Folks I Surprised In Drift Creek” in which the poet describes how:

“…in remote wilderness
I saw sex—arms and legs in the way
like when these creatures had finned hunger
and nothing else—“

In addition to the moving poems in this book, Lost Salmon is complemented by beautiful artwork. Its cover is a blue-green, mixed media piece on wood by Jennifer Williams entitled “Hooked.” The dedication page has a pencil sketch of a salmon by Herb Welch. Lost Salmon is certainly a book that will be treasured by many—fishers, environmentalists, writing teachers, and naturalist-oriented readers—among others. AQ

AQ16 Summer 2016 Book Reviews

AQ16 Summer 2016 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Utmost by Hiram Larew. I. Giraffe Press, ISBN 978-0-9972243-0-6, 35 pages.
Resonance by Gary Beck. Dreaming Big Publications, ISBN 978-1523916405, 135 pages.

During the last quarter, I received two books that I felt were worth reviewing due to their artistry and scope. Both are by present or past AQ authors and both describe similar concerns such as aging and love. However, their poems have different settings such as country v city and the natural v the human worlds and different approaches. The first book is a poetry chapbook entitled Utmost by AQ16 contributor Hiram Larew. The second is a poetry book entitled Resonance by AQ12 contributor Gary Beck.

Utmost’s 23, one-page or half-page poems are suggestive, meditative, find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and use common words to express enigmatic thoughts. “Anything Can Happen” is the most concerned with the inexpressible and the unknown “You love what’s next more than people—/…You’re so grateful for what’s unknown.” The poem “What Do You Think” also describes Larew’s love of the unexpected. “But most of all/I worship stuck doors/Because they make me blink when I didn’t expect to” or the upside-down world of “Marvely” “When bad tastes like candy/And good is just ache?”

Thoughts about aging are also found in “Boy Howdy.” Larew refers to aging by saying his father’s: “…coat pockets were really my teenage years.//Carry on now is how I feel now — ” In “Vista” he writes: “I’m new at being old.” “Rafters” opens with “Maybe you can’t roar to start/Anymore as others can.” The next poem, “Your Life’s” terminal line is “Not forever but a dot.” along with “It’s Getting Late,” which comments on the aging process: “Too often it seems shoulders are cold.”

Larew’s poems are also about the comfort that he feels in the outdoors “…the best work you will ever do is when/You are opening the barn.” His enigmatic use of images from the natural world to express his thoughts are most prevalent in “Who Is” when he writes: “What I won’t say is why/What I will say is look/I might even whisper smoke—/But I won’t say you.” His line “I will only love a small piece of sky” shows once again his love and trust of the natural world. In “But More” we can see Larew’s artistic delight in the natural world and the ability to imagine other, unknown places. “To swell summer as apples do/Or shade swirls like bridges can/To be lights on in other rooms”

The last and title poem brings the writer back to the natural world with images of “I would be garlands older…”spoons of dirt…”an idea that scratches radishes redder”…”A bird straddling two branches.” These poems are imagistic, enigmatic little gems with one foot in the natural world and the other in the world of the imagination. I highly recommend this collection.

Resonance by Gary Beck also discusses the subject of mortality and especially aging, (among others) but within a New York City nightscape. “Old Age” for example which mentions: “youth’s unebbing hunger/is eternal and denied.” reminds me of William Yeats’ “Long Legged Fly” poem in which Caesar considers his battle options. Other mentions are included in the poems “Change” in which the writer is asked to be a pallbearer for a man he barely knew: “I think about an acquaintance, now dead./I never liked him…I look at pictures of the dead/and barely remember their faces.” or in the very short, “Woeful Vision” where the poet sees a woman he once knew: “No longer young/but not older than me…and a wrinkled face/that has forgotten smiles.”

Unlike Larew, Beck directly describes social and sexual relations. In “Opium Escape” Beck describes the intoxicating and sometimes unwise nature of being in love. In “Fond Pause,” “Sad Mate,” “Two Songs of Lust” and “Separation” he describes the separation felt by the unloved from the active world that goes on. “Severance” is about the intensity of a one-night stand/brief encounter, “Renunciation” about how unrequited love that burns itself out and “Electronic Loss” includes new metaphor about losing a love in a telephone booth or over the phone. Beck’s social consciousness is best expressed in his poems “Dire Prediction” in which his wonders what the the loss of jobs to the service economy will mean to those “who will walk through fire, bullets, blood,/to protect us.” In “Children of Deprivation” he wonders about the effect of capitalistic hoarding from poor in a land of plenty—“know swollen barns of grain/rotting on a distant government preserve.” In “Rebel’s Pliant” he hopes humankind will overcome “its obliterating madness.”

Buried within Resonance, however, on page 98 of this 135 page collection, is the book’s real touchstone, a vignette about the poet’s first submission and its relative worth, entitled “First Poem Sent — Oct. 1962.” In a few lines, Beck describes the respect a poet’s hard, passionate work receives as it is sent on its way: “(I) gave it to the postman./Without a glance/he tossed it on a pile/and it fell to the floor.” Other ars poetic or ars longa, vita brevis poems can be found in this volume including “Possession” with its “dozen poems on my desk…works of beauty wisdom joy wild hearty lusty obscene reverent ecstatic maudlin curious erotic mad exuberance….” “Art Calls” is a prose poem that goes right to the gut as it describes a poet’s struggle in discovering and fulfilling his calling.

There are many good poems in Resonance. However, the volume could do with a thematic regrouping of the poems to give the reader a better overview of Resonance’s approximately 110 poems. In addition, I would suggest moving “First Poem Sent” to the very beginning so it could function as a sort of prologue or proem. These two changes would help a reader dip more easily into this long and varied poetry collection.