Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Cost of Walking by Shannon Tharp

Skyskill Press, 2011. I had the pleasure of hearing Shannon Tharp read poems from The Cost of Walking in New York in October. The room fell completely silent as she read. A sudden attentiveness was palpable as the audience awakened to the gravity of her words and to the voice of these poems— one that is careful but insistent and vital. It’s clear that Tharp listens to the sounds of the world, the sounds of her words, and to “the weather within,” as John Taggart writes.

The poems in Tharp’s first full-length collection confront various physical landscapes and climates. The images are often Midwestern— fields, stretches of highway, vacant barns, or they are Pacific Northwestern— rain, fog, harbors, the sea. The poems’ speaker pulls at these environments and turns them inward. Of course this comes at a cost— the longing that is established in thinking through the particulars of existence, an awareness that we walk through the world alone, and what we do have is received in moments and pieces. This is what poetry gives us. This is what it can do: “What of birds and the peculiarity of / flight— a pattern by which to scratch // existence. What of me and the inexpense of / sitting in a field with your face / to any nameable thing.” (“Steady, Less and Less”)

The poems are often short and sometimes written in one and two word lines. This form gives each word weight and value. It’s as if a wind has blown through the poem leaving just its spine or perhaps the edge of a wound: “The / ocean // reasserts / itself. // Each / wave // makes / a crater.” (“Travelogue”) These poems are real and truly beautiful. We get to dwell solely in the sublime, and that’s refreshing. From “After Astronomy”:

“Books, porcelain, windows are open,

and heaven could be said

to be a wreck.

The clouds are here,

they aren’t up in the sky— that’s

your handwriting, that’s the way you write.

I told you I need something

to hold— here I am cold

with you, without.”

I could not give a book a higher recommendation. This one’s important. Read it. Get it right here:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

OF LAMB by Matthea Harvey & Amy Jean Porter

McSweeney's Books, 2011. Packed with wit, dark humor, and twisted pathos, Of Lamb is a collaboration between Matthea Harvey and Amy Jean Porter combining Harvey's erasure of A Portrait of Charles Lamb by David Cecil with Porter's stunning, often slightly disturbing illustrations that creates a contemporary re-telling of the relationship between Mary and her Lamb. With the outward appearance of a children's book and a story within that follows Mary and Lamb's relationship from naive sexual encounter to Lamb's uncomfortable realization of self to the emotional and psychological disintegration of both lovers, Of Lamb beautifully juxtaposes Porter's bright, inviting, thoroughly weird illustrations (like, are those Lamb's genitals?) with Harvey's lines, a mixture of child-like declarative sentences ("Lamb lived in the background") and the slightly antiquated diction of Cecil's original text ("He moved among the rouged illusions of dawn"). As the story progresses and Harvey's lines lead Lamb and Mary together and apart and together again with Porter's illustrations continually complicating and exacerbating the emotional and psychological drama of Mary and Lamb's taboo relationship, Of Lamb develops both a growing magic and a sense of ontological frustration: how, really, can the girl and the animal love one another? However, Of Lamb's success and delight lies in the fact that it never poses such questions directly but lets the narrative built of Harvey's careful word choices interact with and rattle off and oddly illuminate Porter's illustrations, creating a seamless dialogue between the two artists that endlessly charms, humors, and, thankfully, weirds-out.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Not Merely Because of the Unknown That was Stalking Toward Them by Jenny Boully

I have a big crush on Jenny Boully. This is very awkward for everyone involved. But I can't help it. Her first book, The Body, made me go "Whoah" in a Keanu Reeves manner when I was in graduate school, and her next book [one love affair] prompted an "Oh my God, this is so true" reaction that had me pushing the book onto any person who would listen. 

This latest book uses J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy (think Peter Pan) as a jumping off point for Boully's intriguing mix of poetry/prose. The darker adult themes that always existed in Barrie's work are pulled forth, and the anxieties and pressures of reaching or avoiding physical and emotional maturity are highlighted. That sounds serious, and it is, but this book is also fun -- from Neverland logistics (does Tinkerbell need tiny tampons?) to Neverland pinups (Tiger Lily in a seashell bikini, the seductive stylings of Hook). Boully's latest will keep you turning the page to see what familiar scene or character she'll reinvent next -- though I confess that as I neared the end I turned the pages more and more slowly, hoping to make it last.

Friday, April 6, 2012


Factory Hollow Press, 2012. I Want to Open the Mouth God Gave You Beautiful Mutant is a poetry comic written and drawn by Bianca Stone. Imagine if Edward Gorey and Frank O'Hara had the complete DVD set of Star Trek: Voyager when they were roommates at Harvard and the haunting, delightful, generously weird tone of this book, moving line by line, frame by frame, and page by page towards inexplicable wonder, will be immediately clear. In the two pieces in the book, "Waltzing With You" and "Les Miserables," the poetry and the images are so seamlessly combined that it never feels as if one came before the other, as if they were somehow created simultaneously. Blurring distinctions between human and nonhuman, conscious and unconscious, the images have a fragile, hopeful sorrow to them, reminding you that these poetry comics are hand-drawn and that they are human-drawn, in the sense that they are emotionally and imaginatively active, never simply illustrations. That there is never a truly straight line, that nearly every figure and scene is distorted and darkly singular, that lines like "Can you see me in the dusk, asking nothing of it?" are tethered to these figures and scenes in a way that works on a reader's intuition like the waking aftermath of a dream, that as I write this I am realizing that a line is something you both draw and write and how odd it is to have never stumbled on that thought before but how obvious it is that the aesthetic of a drawn line that is never straight would perfectly translate into a written line whose logic, images, or associations are not straight or straight-forward makes so much sense: all of these things contribute to make this book, like any exciting piece of art, an experience that asks to be returned to over and over, never feeling completely tied up. It's as if every time I close and open the book the drawings have slightly shifted or a new line has been added. Did that typewriter say "Enigma Machine" last time I saw it? If only these were the questions we were always asking ourselves.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

About the Dead by Travis Mossotti

Utah State University Press, 2011. If you’re looking for poetry of brawn and muscle and girth and vertebrae, look no further than Travis Mossotti. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting him over beers and oysters and hearing him read in Tallahassee at FSU’s visiting writer series. Let’s just say those undergrads there for extra credit had no idea what was coming.

This book is awesome because it is written by a real person—not some phantom or peacock feathers—about other real people. About the Dead might as well be called About What They Leave Behind, but don’t expect a lot of sitting around and wailing. People do shit in this book. They go tubing (“One generation has tended to this river the same/ as the last and we’ve come here to mock that”), get arrested, go to church, play the blues, and hoe weeds in the same way they might bury their dead. They live in real places that have gas stations and fried chicken meals and hillsides where the dead “…lean against the wood frames/ like turnips wondering why nobody/ ever comes to visit.” In “Alice,” a poem that gives me goose bumps, the speaker follows the memory of a lost love in such tender and unapologetic language:

Maybe it was the seam of your black stocking
I trailed through Appalachia, chicken dinner
cooling on a billboard, the sky opening up
its empty skull, gravel dust powdering
my unkempt hair with the same dull ivory
of the letter you sent me telling me not to come

And—thank God—the speaker of these poems feels real people feelings. Nothing is more irritating than a voice that pretends not to hold grudges, wallow in self-pity, get horny (“She walked like most people wish they could fuck.”), get pissed off, get even or at least try our hardest to like the rest of us. When the poem “Apology” ends with this stanza:

Maybe your time down here might’ve been better spent
learning to fire an M-16 instead of patchworking daisies
into your coffin lining. I apologize, that last one was out of line.

we know the speaker doesn’t really apologize, and that makes me cackle.