Friday, August 14, 2015

NEW! Review of Danielle Pafunda

The Dead Girls Speak in Unison by Danielle Pafunda. Coconut Books, $14.

Reviewed by Brittany Capps

Danielle Pafunda abolishes the stereotype of prissy, dainty girls in her thrilling poetry collection The Dead Girls Speak in Unison. Set in a surrealistic underworld, takes on the collective voice of empowered female corpses and ironically uses quaint language and structure to describe the true nature of women.

The first poem sets up the dynamic between the collection’s lulling rhythms and sounds with the grotesque imagery and sensory elements. Pafunda begins the poem with a traditional pattern and a slant rhyme, “On the front page / life has smeared. // We get no news / of home down here,” followed by a less standard, “No before, no news of storms,” and then throws off the rhythm with a jarring “No new noise, no newsy skin, / on the surface of things,” before switching to prose-like verse. She then brings in a worm, “our sorry conduit,” which will serve as a motif and a metaphor for the female body throughout the book. 

The Dead Girls Speak in Unison includes 35 poems interspersed with “chants,” “hymns,” “lullabies,” and “fragments,” which could pass for sing-songy threats from a horror film. The chants seem to serve their purpose well, as they resemble witch-like incantations. The hymns and lullabies, however, are used ironically as they portray sensory imagery that is anything but soothing. The fragments seem devoid of the beauty and embellishment conventionally associated with women and offer the most “bare-boned” version. 

Most of the poems are written in tercets, giving them a false sense of coquettish neatness. The “tra-la-la” structure sets readers up for skipping in Sunday school dresses, but are instead served “a glass eye / in a glass jar / in the snapped jaw / of an alligator girl.” Additionally, Pafunda uses internal rhyming and assonance such as “Though our sticks are split / we still get eventide / still get lit,” but the auditory sounds and onomatopoeia she includes are dissonant and gruesome: “Your toenails hooked, ashen heels, / scuffing the bed sheets // tearing the bed sheets / to ribbons / selling the ribbons.” Pafunda wants to be clear that the women she speaks of do not play with dollies or host tea parties.

Speaking to what appears to be the male gender as a whole, her voices threaten, “We’ll come for you. / And in your domicile / we’ll paint our hooks // and in your eyes / we’ll hook our beaks.” She claims “We haven’t made any progress,” but swears to keep trying. Pafunda’s collection leaves readers craving more of its “rotten pages.” “If you’re looking for something pretty,” don’t look here. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

NEW! Review of Wayne Koestenbaum

My 1980s & Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16.

Reviewed by Becky Peterson

Poet and scholar Wayne Koestenbaum gives hope to those of us who, committed to an intellectual life of wandering and obsessively pursuing one idea after the next, are often dismissed as dilettantes. Koestenbaum defends us, as well as the marginal, the rejected, the invisible, and the incoherent. My 1980s & Other Essays displays Koestenbaum’s meandering interests in essays that range from the traditional to the experimental, and from the brainy to the corporeal, and which are consistently both eye-opening and entertaining.
Despite the title essay, My 1980s spans a range of time periods and subject matter. The 1980s are important in their formative role in Koestenbaum’s consciousness as a writer: “when AIDS hit in the early 1980s I decided not to waste my maybe-very-short life writing what I did not want to write or obeying rules that in the grand scheme of things (death) didn’t exist.” Koestenbaum’s distinctive style, which mixes autobiographical and theoretical analysis, is at the foreground of this collection. The text moves among the worlds of film, literature, and art, devoting attention to a variety of individuals, including Susan Sontag, Cary Grant, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and taking multiple creative and theoretical risks that result in a rich assemblage. 

“Privacy in the Films of Lana Turner” merges memoir and pop culture analysis, exploring the intimacy between fan and celebrity. Koestenbaum muses, I have long wondered how people whose private lives are public knowledge experience mundane daily consciousness unfolding. What is it like to eat breakfast when millions of people know your intimate affairs? Is the experience of eating breakfast altered? Using a diary form, Koestenbaum captures immediate emotions and realizations, and at the same time reflects astutely on the movement of his own mind. He instructs: “Find Cheryl Crane’s autobiography, Detour, and devour it.” I obeyed, and was happy I did.

In addition to offering up provocative reading list recommendations, Koestenbaum enacts a philosophy of writing that, as he explains, “[chooses] blur over clarity.” A mix of multi-disciplinary musings, Barthes-influenced analysis of detail, and what he calls “self-ethnography,” Koestenbaum creates, as he says about Ashbery’s poems, “an instruction manual on how to spend time fruitfully by wasting it, by growing distracted, blurry, foggy, garrulous, horny, contrapuntal.” Poetry, painting, film, and biography are guides to living as well as expressions of lives, and the “opaque surface” is worth our close attention.  Koestenbaum mentions a parallel between the poetics of opaque language and queer studies—“the point of queer poetry may also be to make murky, to distort”—and I would have liked to have heard more about this intriguing connection.

On the level of the sentence, Koestenbaum revitalizes simile and metaphor by pulling together unlikely elements. For example, in “Hart Crane’s Gorgeousness,” he compares Hart Crane and Stella Dallas in a meditation on poetry and the outsider. Studying Warhol’s serial portraits, he describes the experience of looking as “a tsunami of hyperesthesia, like what I imagine Roman Polanski felt when he first had sex with Sharon Tate, or vice versa.” In an essay on painter Forrest Bess, Koestenbaum speaks of Bess’s “comic sense,” “his off-kilter, snake-oil-vending taste for ceremonies-in-a-void, like a Saharan five-and-dime remake of Alla Nazimova’s silent Salomé, but with a spartan décor—or like a shell-shocked yet carnivalesque Paul Klee who’d studied tantra.” These similes, which build on each other with increasing surprise and energy, help mark this as a stand-out collection, worthy of examination for its art as well as its theory.

Monday, August 03, 2015

2015 Tomaž Šalamun Prize winner

Congratulations to Felicia Zamora, whose portfolio Of Unknowing won the 2015 Tomaž Šalamun Prize! 

Her portfolio, along with the portfolios of the finalists, will appear later this year in the print edition of Verse.

Monday, July 13, 2015

NEW! Two poems by Aidan Forster

Aidan Forster


It is unbearably hot and it is not even my birth month yet.
June half-open, already dripping, in the foreground.

The underside of the kitchen curtain is strewn with palmetto bugs—
they drink its whitenesses, that curtain, that milken sheet.

Consider the architecture of the skin and the curtain:
the folds, the tangles, the sun damage. What is ours is ours.

I am not here to be consumed. 


The house is the dream inverted. It is not a cave,
but has the same aura of myth. It is my job to usher
the insects out of the garage and carry the birds’ nests
to the curb. All the little blue eggs may go rolling out

but that is none of my business because I cannot flit around
them and care for them properly. This may be an issue of nature
and nurture but I can do nothing about that either. We skin
the animals and remove the plastic bags outside of the house

and take their sweet offerings inside. And inside I pour
the green liquid into the little white lid and press my cheeks
against the mirror. Inside, the couch is a place
to slope, waxen, into one another. In the kitchen 

there is a half-eaten pound cake no one will finish. 
I wish to core the green apples in the wire bowl.
The windows brim with insect carcasses curled all around each other. 
I wonder why they draw into themselves before dying.

What lies in their formic stomachs, beneath the glossy skin?
If only everything could be cut into and its center removed
for study or consumption. If only it was easy enough to say 
the name of the dead insects and know what they are hiding.

I am nosy. I want to know what the white insects
in the piano room’s windows are because they confound me.
I want to sit in the sun room for hours and study the dead insects
that have accumulated in the two years since we came here.

(And in that time— what has occurred? We have cut down 
three trees and painted the fence almost-black. We have fixed
the sinks and broken a shower and a toilet. We have ground
lemon peel in the sink and affixed white curtains to the walls.

And what else can be done but continue to polish?)
Outside of the house I know the insects perch on tree branches
and the earthen lips of hills. There, they do not fear death.

What is ours is ours. What is left is for no one.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

more James Tate from the Verse archives

James Tate

Vale of the White Horse

That’s where I first met my bride. She was standing under a chestnut tree during a summer shower. I stopped my car and offered to give her a lift. She didn’t seem to hear me. I got out of the car and walked up to her. Her skin looked and felt like porcelain. Are you okay? I asked. She blinked her eyes as if coming out of a trance. “I was looking for the white horse,” she said. I drove her to a hospital where the doctor diagnosed her as being my bride. “There’s no doubt about it, she is your bride.” We kissed, and thus the Trans-Canadian Highway was born.


A man and a woman meet in an alley. They kiss but they don’t really know one another. You smell like violets, he says putting his head on her breast. You’re strong, she says rubbing herself on his thigh. He runs his hands through her hair and pulls her tighter to him: I must have you, he says. Yes, I want to make love to you, she says touching him between his legs. Yes, you must give up your treasure to fructify the crops, he says. Oh yes, I want to fructify very much, she says. The crops, I mean.

[originally published in Verse, 1999]

RIP, James Tate (1943-2015)

James Tate

Where Babies Come From

Many are from the Maldives,
southwest of India, and must begin
collecting shells almost immediately.
The larger ones may prefer coconuts.
Survivors move from island to island
hopping over one another and never
looking back. After the typhoons
have had their pick, and the birds of prey
have finished with theirs, the remaining few
must build boats, and in this, of course,
they can have no experience, they build
their boats of palm of palm leaves and vines.
Once the work is completed, they lie down,
thoroughly exhausted and confused,
and a huge wave washes them out to sea.
And that is the last they see of one another.
In their dreams Mama and Papa
are standing on the shore
for what seems like and eternity,
and it is almost always the wrong shore. 

[originally published in Verse, Volume 14.2, 1997]

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

15 days to enter the 2015 Tomaž Šalamun Prize

The Tomaž Šalamun Prize honors the great Slovenian poet who inspired several generations of poets around the world. Because Tomaž was especially supportive of emerging poets, the Tomaž Šalamun Prize is open to poets of any age who have published no more than one full-length poetry collection. (Publishing multiple chapbooks or books in other genres is not a disqualification.) Previous publication is not a requirement for entering the prize. Translations into English are acceptable if the original author is still living and has not published more than one full-length collection. Prose poetry and hybrid forms are also acceptable.

All submissions will be considered for publication in the print edition of Verse, which has been publishing only chapbook-length portfolios since 2009. All finalists will receive offers of publication in Verse. Published portfolios receive $10/page, $250 minimum. The prize winner will receive $1000.

Because the winning portfolio will be published in Verse and because every submission will be considered for both the prize and publication in Verse, everything in the portfolio must be unpublished. Response times to submissions will be 3-4 weeks (longer for finalists).

Entry fee: $15

Deadline: July 15, 2015

Requirements: Do not include your name anywhere on your submission. (Manuscripts will be read blind.) Your name should be listed only in the required fields in Submittable. Your submission must be a .doc, .docx, or .pdf file.

Contest Process: 1st round: all manuscripts will be read blind, and up to 10 portfolios will be selected as finalists (finalists will be notified at the time of selection) / 2nd round: finalists' manuscripts will be read blind by the judge, who will select the winner

To submit, click on the link above or follow the SUBMIT TO VERSE link on the right.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

NEW! Poem by Rob Cook

Rob Cook


The water is a lie. 
The water will be blamed for its own disappearance.
The water flows to us from the basements of the earth.
The water goes brown in its invisible cities. 
The water moves with expeditions of punctured tarpaulin.
The water breeds only uncountable and useless water.
The water will be punished for revealing its unforgivable information.
The water will be poisoned and devoured by human lobsters.
The water will return because there are no other gods. 
The water will be given only the protection of the pelican word for “water”
while it weakens with the stillness of all plankton.
The water’s father will be fed the lost laughter of a hermit crab. 
Treat the water as an animal flowing with cellophane mist.
Invest in the toxic potentials of water. 
Buy and sell water! 
Predict the prices of water, the demands of the crowds of water.
If water does not advance, then water will be killed.
None of the water is new.
Water is an old and hackneyed master.
Water is less valuable than television movies of ice.
Water is less valuable than a dress pregnant with octopus.
Water is less valuable than men fighting in cell phone pictures.
Water that can be thought of as a vertebrate now. 
Water that can be heard when its bones of a thousand windows point toward the sky.
There are no longer spaces between people and the red robot sounds of water.
There are no longer sanctuaries of benevolent water in the petroleum eternity.
There are no longer songs whose water has never been touched.
There are search towers instead of oxygen on the microscope slides 
of slowed river water.
The water cannot be trusted: it is no longer a proven place of healing.
The water cannot be trusted even when our spies have infiltrated 
the fish cameras of algae hotels.  
The water can’t be tasted: it can be guessed at, but never known.  
The water’s people will have no water to drink, no water to cut open for the deeper water.
They will have to sip the false glacier melt from their own parched bodies.
They will forget the lakes and reservoirs and underground oceans of fog.
The water can be discussed, but only in leviathan apocrypha. 
The water can be felt as pain because the insides of the water are turning human now.
The water is despised, the water is overcrowded, the water is herded 
and forced into plastic bottles with no mother, no father, 
not a word or a prayer or a breath from the next labeled crack of light.
The water can be listened to because its molecules are thickening from a horrible thirst. 
The water is not dying, the iron people will tell you
while the water cowers in the bottomless aquifers of antifreeze, 
unable to move the heavier water, unable to reach the iron surface
where the ships are not afraid and the sonar is an advancing predator
that survives now in fleets of shark memory.
No one listens to their weeping that can be drilled and tested and taken away. 
No one feels the stronger water nuzzling 
the weaker water during the body’s mutilation dramas.
How will anyone survive the stillness of water, 
how will anybody endure the secrets among the water’s many selves. 
Each person betrays, through a blunted thirst, his or her graveyards of rain.
Each person hears and ignores—as difficult, wasteful, and unproven—
the cries of the dark and falling water.

Friday, June 19, 2015

NEW! Review of Matthea Harvey

If The Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey. Graywolf Press, $25.

Reviewed by Brynne Rebele-Henry

Matthea Harvey’s If The Tabloids Are True What Are You?  resembles a museum, every section a glossy curio cabinet. Harvey weaves a tight sharp world where girls are made of glass and mermaids can grow legs and become costume designers. Each of the book’s sections is accompanied by strange multimedia art (personettes of mermaids with household appliances for tails, embroidered cloth, pictures of everyday objects encased in glass, and so on). Harvey is like a surrealist sculptor who makes miniature worlds out of pinecones, and the result is stunningly beautiful, disturbing, genre-migrating writing. 

The women-girls in this book take male fantasies and exaggerate them, stretching them out until they break. They are aquatic, insubstantial or too substantial, held back by either a physical defect or dysfunction, such as the mermaid who can’t swim because she is half tuna, or the mermaid in “Telletrefono” who is slowly killed by the world she wasn’t meant to inhabit.

The book opens with a group of prose poems about malfunctional, objectified, male fantasy-warping mermaids. The poems are accompanied by mermaid silhouettes, in which the tails are household tools.  One mermaid is too straightforward. Another is inside out, her organs are her skin. The Impatient Mermaid is too fast and wired, longing for death. The Tired Mermaid is perpetually exhausted.  Morbid Mermaid is enraptured by death, but dissatisfied with the foam that mermaids turn into when they die.  Backyard Mermaid is trapped in a suburban neighborhood. The Objectified Mermaid  is doing a pin-up photo shoot and working in a dive bar. Deadbeat Mermaid is an aquatic hick.  Homemade Mermaid is botched: 

The Homemade Mermaid is top half pimply teenager, bottom half tuna. This does not make for a comely silhouette, and the fact that her bits are stitched together with black fishing wire only makes the combo more gruesome. The Homemade Mermaid floods Mermag’s  “Ask Serena” column with postcards that read, “O why not half salmon or half koi?” signed Frankenmaid. Sure, she’s got the syndrome—loves her weird-eyed maker who began his experiments with Barbies and goldfish in a basement years ago—

The book’s fourth section, “On Intimacy,” houses a collection of poems (“My Zebra Son,” “My Wolf Sister,” “My Owl Other”) about woman-child-animal hybrids. Like the mermaid poems in the book’s previous sections, these poems characterize the stigmas surrounding womanhood and family. 

Another part of the book, “The Glass Factory,” is a long poem broken into sections and framed by images of household items filled with glass. The girls in the factory have never been outside. First they make a girl from glass, then they make new worlds: 

The thermometer hits one thousand
degrees and suddenly she’s standing there—
hot, glowing, almost still liquid. Like them, 
but unlike too. They don’t question that
she is alive, walking, gesturing. But no one 
imagined that she, with her new glass eyes
would be able to see the glass lock 
and the glass key. In an instant, she opens 
the door and they stream outside into
the solid world. This isn’t at all what 
they imagined. The sky is like lead
above their heads. The once-silent birds
flood their ears with clashing arias. 

Harvey follows “The Glass Factory” with a group of animalistic dystopian poems with retro images that juxtapose the harsh realities of Harvey’s writing with kitschy multimedia images of miniature household items and small, seemingly random objects. 

Harvey uses the mermaid as a token of womanhood again in the last section of the book, “Telletrefono”: 

Preset Antonio Meucci Monologue Mode: 

It looks plastic and unbeautiful, no? But oh if you filleted this telettrofono, the wonders you would see. Two tubes lined with fish scales and mercury, sparks of electricity tripping up tiny gold stairs, a spirit level stitched into a swimbladder, a microphone made of minimolluscs, and, floating in a small stoppered vial, one petticoat snippet, one mermaid tear, and a cell from the gill of an electric eel. You are holding in your hand “the telephone which I invented and which I first made known and which, as you know, was stolen from me.” 


Preset Mermaid Monologue Mode (Esterre Meucci) 

Look up. The clouds are a pod of belugas,
the sun, a bloom of jellyfish fluorescing 
a few fathoms up, or no, make it nighttime—
the light underwater was never this bright. 
That was once my life. I moved through it
smoothly, too smoothly—sometimes just to feel 
something, I’d take—between my thumb
and forefinger—one of the many hooks 
that were hunting underwater and give it a tug. 
Hello, I mouthed underwater, hello?
In “Telletrefono,” a mermaid who dares to leave the ocean because she is craving sound faces the consequences as her legs and body break from the noise, a metaphor akin to the shaming and punishment inflicted on women in fairy tales and in the real world for their expressions of sexuality. The mermaid is punished for coming ashore, and, metaphorically, for becoming immoral because of it. Her inventor husband creates bright, loud worlds for her as their life becomes increasingly ruinous. Throughout If The Tabloids Are True What Are You? Harvey takes stereotypes and destroys them, leaving a trail of shards in her wake. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

NEW! Two poems by Rob Cook

Rob Cook

Two poems


When the tenement loses 
its place in the light, 
thirty pigeons bleed 
from the gray brick sky
where crowded bedrooms dwell.

Fat with plague 
and sidewalk plumage
the pigeons descend as a single shroud
and peck at the cement 
like starving asphodels. 

And the people, always talking,
always feeding their obedient phones
and ignoring their outdated dogs,
scatter like the scattered 
seedlings of a colossus that fell. 


Dear trilobite and all your advancing crayon
mammals, it is never night.
The sunlight is just broken
or hunted down or self-conscious
from the way its turtles twitch like sea lungs.

The dinosaurs, made from shelves
of shale, have just led the world
to a different room of oranges and wind
and everything the trees and hills can see,
everything the mountains shy with stone can see.

And even though the rabbit-shaped kings cannot play
and the tomatoes cannot play, nor the leaves,
and the faces seem scary in the sky today,
it is not raining—

it’s just your shirt stripes
mining the cephalon forests of a mirror
when it’s closest to the happiness 
stolen from your toothpaste shades of sky,
that bedtime era.

And there the frowns 
from a more slight and missing day
become bright listening for your trails 
through fossil ranges of salamander and cynodont
and a pre-school apricot nephew. 

With a clown’s twelve giggling fingers,
you hunt the sugared cliffs of a cake
for a brachiopod’s grandmother
and a Norian granddad, both still 
next to the sounds a rock made
back in the mythological light.

And still tall with miles and stories
and hugs of dandelion worlds,
they bring five windswept candles,
five hives of ice cream,
five soda bottle amphibians
and hold your newly sprouted hand, 
its house and the little way it laughs

without windows on a Silurian, birthday afternoon.

Friday, May 22, 2015

NEW! Poem by Lane Falcon

Lane Falcon


I’ll roll up the road 
behind you, child, not so 

no one follows, nothing skips 
beside you but the leaves— 

so you can bury your horse 

in peace. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

2015 Tomaž Šalamun Prize

Submissions are now open for the 2015 Tomaž Šalamun Prize.

The Tomaž Šalamun Prize honors the great Slovenian poet, who inspired several generations of poets around the world. Because Tomaž was especially supportive of emerging poets, the Tomaž Šalamun Prize is open to poets of any age who have published no more than one full-length poetry collection. (Publishing multiple chapbooks or books in other genres is not a disqualification.) Previous publication is not a requirement. Translations into English are acceptable if the original author is still living and has not published more than one full-length collection. Prose poetry and hybrid forms are also acceptable.

All submissions will be considered for publication in the print edition of Verse, which has been publishing only chapbook-length portfolios since 2009. All finalists will receive offers of publication in Verse. Published portfolios receive $10/page, $250 minimum. The prize winner will receive $1000.

Because the winning portfolio will be published in Verse and because every submission will be considered for both the prize and publication in Verse, everything in the portfolio must be unpublished. Response times to submissions will be 3-4 weeks (longer for finalists).

Entry fee: $15

Deadline: July 15, 2015

Requirements: Do not include your name anywhere on your submission. (Manuscripts will be read blind.) Your name should be listed only in the required fields in Submittable. Your submission must be a .doc, .docx, or .pdf file.

Contest Process: 1st round: all manuscripts will be read blind, and up to 10 portfolios will be selected as finalists (finalists will be notified at the time of selection) / 2nd round: finalists' manuscripts will be read blind by the judge, who will select the winner

To submit, click on the link above or follow the SUBMIT TO VERSE link on the right.

Monday, April 20, 2015

NEW! Poem by Michael Odom

Michael Odom


There are no songs, no cars, no dogs barking, 
No talk. No rock can hit on rock 
Without these words ringing out,
And no words are spoken to hear this vow.
White forever means your dress
Descending the aisle, a diving bell 
In my oceanic blur of a world.
Our home is nothing fire can burn
Or poverty dissolve, time ruin. 
War & Plaque & Death ride by
Outside in their thundering city.
Our city exists in bed before breakfast, 
As rumpled streets, avenue bustling,

The population, two. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

NEW! Poem by Carolyn Guinzio

Carolyn Guinzio

Thirteen Husbands

My first husband bought this house. He worked his way through the ranks. We moved to some terrible towns, but now I know if I have nothing else, I have these Great rooms.
If you thought there was no skull-cavern vast enough to hold the many woes I pour forth, you have not met my second husband.
When I am making quick work of the Haagen Daas, my third husband will gently take the carton from my hands.
Why is my fourth husband not standing on a ladder to switch the fixtures’ incandescent beams? Because he is tall.
When confronted with a sticky aesthetic wicket, my fifth husband is the go-to guy to guide me through such agonies as Should the you be he?
My sixth husband has been out of town for twelve of the last fourteen days. I powder my nose to Skype.
Why, when I talk about other people, my seventh husband asks, do I always seem to talk about myself?
When I am collecting the dirty plates left on the table by my eighth husband, I feel a rush of gratitude for his slumped shadow on the couch.
Sometimes, one needs to be stonily reminded of how much worse it could be. That’s when I welcome the comforting gloom of my ninth husband.
My tenth husband has twelve other wives.
Between my eleventh husband and me, there are no words.
Between my twelfth husband and me, there are the same nine words, over and over.
If only I had access to the beautiful, heightened language I need to explain my unknowable thirteenth husband. Perhaps number five can help me.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Lluís Roda


          n. niche left in the body of a wall
          in which to place a statue, 
          an altar, etc.

I am a thurifer. I come and go…
To no effect. Elemental, I’ve got this.
We’re ignorant of Petrarch, ignorant of so much.
Where we’ve been, where we’re going…
Who we are at heart, what we want.
In any case, I was your fornícula.
Even so, it might have been the reverse.
And to be statuary, lifeless, is not funny at all.
But how much worse to be the hole with a plan.
Because, the sincerity of the hyaline soul,
No one will live in that space.
But if, by chance, someday you walk past
Where a crowd observes a statue inert,
Try using your coins, use your tears…
Perhaps she is only posed,
And, with a touch, she’ll move.

Translated from the Catalan by Michael Odom

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

NEW! Review of Colin Winnette

Coyote by Colin Winnette. Les Figues, $17.

Reviewed by Brigid Riley

In the opening page of Colin Winnette’s Coyote, predators wander the threshold between the wild and a house that seems to stand on the cusp of civilization. In contrast to the family enjoying an evening at the house, the animals appear as threats to the security of human society. Yet as the safety of home collapses from the inside, Coyote picks away at the constructs of humanity and uncovers the ugly brutality harbored beneath, peeling back the thin veil of civilization in this unnerving exploration of the animalistic nature of humans. 

Over a series of fragmented entries into the mind of the narrator, ranging from no more than a couple of sparse sentences to more fully fleshed-out batches of memories, Winnette pieces together a mosaic of the narrator’s troubled life. The narrator is in a turbulent relationship with a man she perceives as utterly pathetic, but she strives to keep things together for their small child. However, when their daughter vanishes and the months slide by with no sign of her, the volatile family unit dissolves into a shadow of life, slipping into a listlessness broken only by the occasional act of desperate grief. The narrator oscillates between numbing depression and frantic bursts of determination to find her child by any means possible, shifting through memories, thoughts, and days like someone looking through a pile of snapshots as she attempts to work through her current situation. All the while her fragmented narrative prickles with a sense of instability that threatens to upset what little structure remains.

From the first page, Coyote is fraught with images of violence laced together with the narrator’s everyday life. Winnette places the narrator and her family on the edge of humanity, balancing an image of normalcy while the wild presses in around them. A mother with her little girl curled on her lap while the father heats buns on a grill gives way to the grisly killing of a coyote, all told in the same matter-of-fact tone as the narrator recounts one last evening with her daughter. The narrator gives voice to a suspended sense of horror looming around the corner as she searches for dangers to herself and her daughter: coyotes crying in the night, bears hunkering just beyond the walls of the house, or strangers coming to kidnap or attack. Yet as the narrator turns her eyes toward the outside, the mercilessness of nature pervades her world. Comparisons between humans and animals sprinkled throughout the narrative position everyone within a dangerous realm of prey and predator; the girl’s father transforms into a small animal attempting to puff himself up in a show of false might to ward off stronger predators; the audience of a talk show become “a chorus of animals” feeding on tragedy; and even children perpetrate acts of violence, displaying an uncomprehending, inherent cruelty as they bully other children into submission and inflict harm on animals. At the same time, animals take on human-like associations as the narrator describes coyotes howling “like some hysterical woman lost out in the woods.” Bit by bit, the boundary between civilization and nature crumbles into a bleak vision of the world.

Far from moral questions of good and evil, Winnette seems more interested in exploring a harsh Darwinian truth under the surface of civilization in Coyote, and his narrator carries the story with the right mix of subtlety and underlying tension to make it work. She pulls the reader in with an easy, conversational voice while her unflinching and unfiltered gaze documents the brutal reality of the human condition. The narrator that Winnette has crafted is one who believes that pretty ideals of “one man lending one thing to another and everybody profiting in some unique and personal way” are a fantasy, and she tears down rosy notions of masculinity, motherhood, and love with the raw honesty of someone beyond caring. Recalling the time when her husband brought back a boar from a hunting trip, the narrator says, “…I think the truth of the matter is that everyone is a killer, given the right order of things.” Through her eyes, no one comes out untouched by primal desires and instincts, not even herself. 

Caught up in this quiet storm is an underlying critique of an equally predatory media ready to pounce on any whiff of a story. As the narrator encounters the media in her search for her daughter, the world of talk shows and reality TV brims with an artificiality just as twisted as the unpleasant reality that the narrator lives. While the narrator eats up the charming act of a certain talk show host and believes him to be compassionate and purely motivated, her tragedy becomes fodder for a sensational show, as well as entertainment for the gluttonous audience. Obsession with a moment of stardom rears its head even in the midst of grief, and fuels the media’s insatiable desires for the next big story. The criticism is sharp, but delicately weaved into the narrative.  

Winnette’s choice to leave the characters and location of this novel nameless acts as the final breach of barriers to complete this autopsy of the human condition. As the veil of normalcy quickly slips off the image of the family, so too does the reader’s ability to easily compartmentalize the characters as “other.” The picture of a mother, father, and child having a quintessential cookout with which Winnette begins the story could be the people next door, or even one’s own family. Coyote implicates everyone in its spiral of desperation, madness, and violence as the concept of humanity implodes. As the novel speeds toward its shattering conclusion, the reader will be left hungry for a second read in order to put the pieces of the narrator’s haunting tale back together again.  

Friday, April 03, 2015

NEW! Review of Tom McCarthy

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, $24.

Reviewed by Daniel Hatt

Not long into Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, the narrator, U., offers a piece of advice about the sort of book Satin Island is: “events!” he scoffs, “If you want those, you’d best stop reading now.” And even before the first page is turned, the cover acts as something of a warning. Set sharply against brightly colored inkblots, the worryingly dull words “treatise,” “essay,” “report,” “confession” and “manifesto” are all crossed out before finally settling on “a novel.” Yet as it progresses, some sort of generic hybrid emerges that manages to cast doubt even on the most trustworthy of labels.
Satin Island is McCarthy’s fourth book, coming after the Man Booker Prize nominated C. As well as being a writer, he’s also the general secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious organization he started with a friend. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, his work has been criticized in the past for seeming a bit too pleased with itself or, at times, a bit too indulgent. Fully ignoring these criticisms, in preparation for his latest venture he took up residency at the International Artists Studio Program in Stockholm, as noted in his acknowledgements, where he dedicated a few days to sitting around staring at projections of oil spills on big white walls. Then he spent a while in New York, thinking “about the general impossibility of writing a novel about the general impossibility of etc.” By most sensible presumptions Satin Island should probably be left well alone. But, as it happens, this is a book that takes these sensible presumptions and has a clever, slightly crazed dance with them, leaving little choice for the reader but to gape at what McCarthy has done in this “novel.”
The narrator of Satin Island, U., is an English anthropologist who briefly shot to fame with a book about modern clubbing culture. So he is not, as he explains, an anthropologist in the studying exotic tribes in Papua New Guinea sense of the word, but one who collates and synthesizes the patterns, rituals, and—most importantly—the narratives of the contemporary: put differently, an incredibly vague discipline, which is exactly the problem that U. encounters during the course of the book. He works for a mysterious company, which he aptly calls The Company, where he puts his ethnographic talent to use in order to sell the product of a given client. The Company has recently won a contract, the Koob-Sassen Project, of which the reader learns little due to “legal reasons.” Despite McCarthy neatly sidestepping a more revealing description, the Koob-Sassen Project is clearly a pretty big deal, so much so that following this apparent coup, Peyman (the boss of The Company) tasks U. with writing the Great Report, or, more precisely, the Great Report. In Peyman’s mind, the Great Report is the “Document,” the “Book,” the “First and Last Word on our age.” U. is posed with an all-encompassing ethnographic task to collate and synthesize everything. Of course, the question soon arises: how the hell do you write about everything?
McCarthy considers this tricky question through a series of recurring images, events and asides, primarily grounded in the language and various philosophies of anthropology. If not for his solid grasp of the discipline, the novel would quickly fall apart. Instead, the multifaceted symbols that U. identifies in the familiar, yet strangely alien, world of Satin Island, which he then carefully picks apart, are deftly conveyed. For instance, the news story of an experienced parachutist who fell to earth after his parachute detached from him mid-air is considered with forensic detail: 

Yet, as at least one article I had read stated, the man’s death was, in this instance—in this country devoid of tall pine trees, this terrain quite unamenable to upgusts, this snow-less season—a foregone conclusion from the moment the cords had been cut. Thus, although he hadn’t actually been killed until the moment of his impact, to all intents and purposes, he had. 

U. attempts to squeeze every last drop of sense out of such tropes in a comparably obsessive, compelling, manner. This desperate search for meaning sometimes results in McCarthy falling victim to somewhat desperate descriptions (the page and a half dedicated to the “carnivorous and booming” ventilation system comes to mind); but what develops is an impression of a man enveloped by the paranoia of failing to complete his Great Report, and so, in his mind, failing to truly understand the world. 
Attempting to defy these likely failures, U. enlists an entire tradition of anthropological thought that informs much of the narrative. In a recent article for The Guardian, McCarthy explains his draw to the figure of the anthropologist: “What he or she embodies for me is a version of the writer minus all the bullshit, all the camouflage or obfuscation—embodies, that is, the function of the writer stripped down to its bare structural essentials.” Despite the lofty ventilation system descriptions, Satin Island is drawn to this clean style of writing, even the novel’s structure resembling an ethnographic paper with its academically numbered subsections.
Of particular interest, though, is what anthropology has to say about the contemporary writing process. U. contemplates the principle of Bronisław Malinoski that the ethnographer should write everything down, no matter how irrelevant something might initially seem. Quickly, however, he realizes that in this modern world of live streams, social networks and digital clouds, one way or another, “it is all written down.” In a world of multiple narratives that are forever being systematically mapped onto various platforms, what is left for U. to write about? And what about the poor novelist? Another famous anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, writes in The Interpretation of Cultures that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” As for actually trying to read these webs, most are probably not worth the bother; McCarthy’s Satin Island, on the other hand, is a web worth reading.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

VERSE's 2015 reading period closes 3/31 at midnight

A reminder if you were planning to submit a portfolio to Verse this year. To submit, click on the link on the right. Submissions will be accepted until midnight, 3/31/15.

Monday, March 30, 2015

NEW! Poem by Carolyn Guinzio

Carolyn Guinzio


If I wanted to mention the flowers, I would say the marigolds seem to be kneeling at 

the feet of the plants that matter more. They seem to be leaning against one another.

Exiles and immigrants make little worlds to replicate big old worlds. They lean.

In supposing a supporting post could be removed, the rehabber was positing beauty

as supreme. Or just the present. There is supposedly a moment when thinking

outpaces the body, an instant of suspension, an outsider trying to blend in 

with the crowd of possibles. But wait and when everything falls back into place,

everything has not fallen. The surveyors are marking with math the exact 

degrees by which a place becomes another. They make a vertical mark under which

the horizontal continues. That partial instant of dissonant friction is where

our land begins. Be sure to bring these directions when you are coming over

for drinks. The kids made a message for the satellite shot, and you don’t want to know

what it said. It can only be seen from a great distance at a single instant a blue

lens lasers its way from a humbling height to the earth. None of us wants to go there.