Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Between the Crackups by Rebecca Lehmann

Salt Publishing, 2011. Winner of the Crashaw Prize. Snaggle-toothed, impish, and daring, Rebecca Lehmann’s debut collection Between the Crackups reads like the love child of Robert Frost with an attitude and Pop Culture with an ear to the ground. Bristling with re-imagined elegies, sonnets, “Letters to a Shithead Friend,” and “A Hundred Words for Loser,” this book completely took me under. At times it was the school bully, passing mean notes in class, spreading vicious rumors. “Bucolic Calling” ends with this unrepentant image: “Mom was in the gravel road crying and we/ laughed at her. We laughed and we laughed at her silly poor-person/ jacket and we laughed at her face, and at her silly tears.” Just as brutal, “For Posterity” snarls the line: “Go publish a bird’s nest.” At other times, though, this book is the victim, exposed, tender and afraid. To contrast, “The Devil is in Detroit” ends with “I never told anyone about the bruise you made,/ but wished I had a bone to break against the world.” In “Particulate Matter,” this stanza nearly broke me:

To the right of the man,
a mother holds a fistful of gnats,
tells me she is saving them for me.
Each gnat is a heartache I
can’t remember.

 The glow worm energy and dark beauty of this book lie in this double-play of aggression and vulnerability. Lehmann shows us an America we all know but don’t want to see: “A kid sells cotton candy in bags at a busy stoplight in summer”; “In the back alley: half/ a bologna sandwich, a flattened refrigerator box”; “The sky like a bathtub/ emptying, the sun a glob/ of blond hair clogging its drain.” In dreams, too, we are not safe from “a snarling monster/ nesting in my oven, its matted fur/ spotted with light and ice, its snaggle-/ tooth a mess of old skulls, forced together.” My favorite poem in the collection, “My Father’s Fourth Tooth,” paints this unforgettable picture of bully and victim and love:
                             A fox hunches

on a bridge, cracking open a clam.
How pink its shell’s ridges; how mealy

 its muscle, its one lonesome tongue.
And the fox—his teeth gleaming,

his fur soaked with brackish water,
gray as my father’s hair.

Part pastoral elegy, part working-man’s ode, and part old-fashioned coming-of-age storytelling, Between the Crackups is an impressive first collection from a bold new poetic voice. Check it out here: http://www.saltpublishing.com/books/smp/9781844718580.htm and Read this Awesome Book!

Friday, May 11, 2012

SCARED TEXT by Eric Baus

Center for Literary Publishing, 2011. Central question: Is the dictionary a bible that is an animal or a story that is a name? This is the question, or a variant of, that Eric Baus’ Scared Text poses, or disposes of, calling upon language as a semantic menagerie in which meaning and sound, mythology and etymology, definition and transformation swarm, dissolve, and amalgamate, revealing the ontological tension within the acts of speaking and writing. The poem “A Delphi” introduces Minus and Iris, figures/apparitions/word-animals who are as much their own definitions as ghosts of Baus’ pluralized “I,” and the characters from which these poems hang their dream-like narrative, literalizing the poet’s interest in absence as presence and the fallibility of our primary sense. 

Minus tried to write his own bible. It began, So what, saliva. So what, 

Iris told us her dad died in space. The whited-out vowels rang in my     
     ears. Stupid moon. Stupid burned-up blind spot. 

The doctors said his name had burned up. We never knew how it 

Baus’ direct statements hypnotize without confounding, building a world of spiritual breakage in which “Minus’s bible was reading itself,” and “I woke up behind the sky.” Governed by paradox and repetitions that accumulate but don’t cohere, “A Delphi” does best what all of these poems do by walking the line between narrative and non sequitur, quelling the difference by making it extraordinary, a bit blooming, a bit explosion, the same. Injecting each syntactically simple phrase with its own lyric dissidence, Baus allows each (prose) ((yes and no)) poem to move both inward to the music of each sentence and outward to the illusory movements of the whole collection. Indeed, the book's obsession with the distinction, or lack of distinction, between name and namelessness, animate and inanimate, turns every word into an amplification of its own semantic struggle between meaning and noise. “Inscribed, blighted, tongue filled with snow. A throat so other I entered my name,” Baus writes, paralleling language and the act of speaking with the need for identity and articulation that is so often stunted or stunned by the inability of language to let us out of its own Bosch-like incongruity. And like taking in a Bosch painting, reading Baus can leave you a little scared, or sacred, depending on how your eyes feel it.