Monday, December 15, 2008

A Review of Erel Shalit’s Enemy, Cripple & Beggar: Shadows in the Hero’s Path (Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com, 2008)

Written by Erel Shalit, a noted and extensively published Jungian psychoanalyst practicing in Ra’anana, Israel, Enemy, Cripple & Beggar is a treasure for our times. Vital and applicable to both lay people and experts, the book flows seamlessly and spirally from scholarship, to textual interpretation, to case studies, and the analysis of dreams. Shalit draws on an impressive breadth of scholarship and myths/fairy tales, looking at both history (e.g., the Crusades or Masada) and story.

The book first discusses the key aspects of the Hero, considering Byron, the work of Robert Graves and Robert Bosnak, the Bible, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, among many other sources.

I take as my starting point the condition of mythlessness in the modern world, as expressed by Jung and reinforced by Campbell and how it is limiting our vision and ability to cure an ailing world rife with war and economic/environmental woes.

If ever we needed to consider the role of the Hero, it is now.

Consider the mistaken mythologizing of the death and wounding, respectively, of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch. While both are certainly heroes, the government’s and media’s manipulation of their circumstances (used to try and justify an unjustifiable war) bring to mind David Mamet’s Wag the Dog, the 1997 film adaptation of Larry Beinhart's novel, American Hero.

The people love their heroes and their construction for societal consumption by the government and the media has become no less than a High Art.

Shalit says, on p. 24: “In society, the hero may be the messenger of hope who lights the torch of democracy. Sometimes it is amazing how, at the right moment in history, the heroism of a nation, spurting forth through layers of oppression, creates dramatic changes and overthrows worn-out regimes.”

Might this apply to U.S. president-elect Barak Obama? Many people think so, and many more find themselves hoping so. Then again, there are many who see him as the shadow, using the term antichrist, and finding similarities between he and Nicolae Carpathia in the Left Behind series.

If ever we needed to consider the role of the Hero, it is now.

Consider the current fascination with Superheroes in the age of CGI and comic book cinema. Just last night I watched Christopher Nolan’s record-shattering The Dark Knight, which takes as its thesis the complicated interrelationship of the hero and the shadow. Given the death of Heath Ledger, who played the Joker, the notions of the Hero are expanded to the realm of the Artist and his or her relationship with Pain.
When Shalit writes, on p. 95, “…life thrives in the shadow; in our detested weaknesses, complex inferiorities and repressed instincts there is more life and inspiration than in the well-adjusted compliance of the persona,” I think that his words bring Ledger’s death into sharp relief. As an acting teacher who works almost exclusively with teens, many of which see Ledger’s “dying for his art” as a form of heroism (an interpretation with which I disagree; it discounts the necessity of craft in preventing such tragedies), I think it is more important than ever to examine carefully the Hero’s role and relationship to the shadow.

The shadow is Jung’s term for the unconscious, the “thing a person has no wish to be” (p. ix). His early experience of his own shadow is, to me, some of the most compelling and useful text in his Memories, Dreams, and Reflections.

The hero must go into the shadow (the forest, the depth of the sea, the desert, the cave¬—Plato’s or the Celtic Bard’s) to retrieve his soul. The shadow is a place of misery, calling to mind Schopenhauer’s ideas about life being mostly pain and sorrow and Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss” [sat chit ananda].

Much of what Shalit centers on as aspects of the Hero are present in the shaman, who also has “one foot in divinity, one in the world of mortals” (p. 33). The journey into the netherworld (often to retrieve or heal the soul), the returning with precious gifts of knowledge, the responsibility of re-integration into the community (see Mircea Eliade’s comprehensive works on shamanism), all parallel the hero’s journey. The modes of the vision quest and the alchemical transformation are, further, symbolically manifested in the landscape of the fairy tale.

Pursuing this idea, Shalit, in the tradition of Robert Bly’s Iron John or Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment, ably presents and dissects a number of fairy tales, myths, and Biblical stories in the course of the book.

“Nixie of the Millpond” is presented without commentary. The myth of Perseus, however, is told with commentary from a wide variety of sources mixed in. It would be valuable to watch Clash of the Titans (1981) after reading this section, as it brings Shalit’s analysis visually to life. Page 47 lists eight traits of the hero myth to guide the interpretation. I would add a ninth—the use of magical items (such as Athena’s shield, Hermes’ sword, and the three gifts of the Stygian nymphs, all of which are given to Perseus to defeat the Medusa).

I have used these same basic elements of the hero myth for the past decade in my theatre workshops with youth and in my books on using drama in the classroom.

If our youth are to break the limiting conventions of societal and governmental structures that have put the planet and its inhabitants in a place of crisis, they—and those who guide and educate them—must understand the Hero and Shadow both.

On p. 65 Shalit writes, “Collective consciousness constitutes a threat by its demand on compliance with rules, roles and regulations.” The mythological fighting of dragons and monsters by the Hero is most clearly articulated to me by Joseph Campbell, when, in various books and interviews, he talked about Nietzsche describing the cycle of life as beginning as a camel loaded down with the requirements of parents and society. The camel then goes into the desert (one of the hero landscapes I mentioned earlier) to become the lion, who must slay the dragon whose scales all say "Thou Shalt." This dragonslaying, certainly a noble and necessary undertaking, situates the Hero as the classic warrior, akin to Michael the Archangel and St. George, but when the fighting is done, the warrior must put down the sword. Whether we speak of the Vulcans comprising the Bush administration (as author James Mann terms them) or an abused child who grows up to wage ongoing battles even on a landscape of peace in a more stable family situation, this is a notion well worth focusing on. I think of the Roman general Cincinnatus, who moved back and forth between sword and plow and the dwarves of the novels of Dan Parkinson, who switch the hammer from one hand to the other as necessary in times of peace and war.

The hero struggling with the shadow often projects onto a demonized Other because, as Shalit reminds us, “Since shadows easily lend themselves to projection [see pgs. 97–101 for the three types identified by Jung], they are discovered so much more easily in the other than oneself” (p. 84). This is, of course, the source of most of the ugliness in the history of Humankind.

The Biblical explorations/interpretations presented are a high point of the book (see, for example, p. 63 on the Virgin Mary) and begin in earnest with the section on the shadow. The etymology of both biblical and mythological names given throughout add much to the discussion.

Shalit uses Oscar Wilde’s “doppelganger novel,” Picture of Dorian Gray, to explore the notion of shadow in terms of our duality, as Dorian is projecting his shadow onto the canvas. Duality—war/peace, animus/anima, masculine/feminine, dark/light—is prevalent throughout the book.

The second half of the book deals with the Enemy, Cripple, and Beggar of the title. The Enemy (the projection onto the Other that is really the shadow in oneself) is explored through such Biblical figures as Amalek, Samson, Jacob, and the key figures in the trial of Jesus. The section on the Fathers and the Collective Consciousness, dealing with Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, Barabbas, and Judas, is fascinating reading. The connection of the father and the son resounds on many levels, including the relationship of Jesus/Judas as being nearly inseparable.

The Cripple (one’s weaknesses and inner wounds) is explored through mythological/fictional figures such as Hephaestus, Ptah, Oedipus, Quasimodo, and the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Cripple.” There are case studies here that serve many of the same functions as the analyses of the myths and fairy tales, and will appeal to those interested in the dynamics of Jungian analysis. Certain aspects of the second case study reminded me of Don Juan DeMarco (1995), the film starring Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp, especially considering that love (Eros) is the means to heal the Cripple, as articulated so well in this book.

The final section deals with the Beggar (the “door that leads to the passageway of the Self,” p. 225), which is the Inner Voice or Daemon. Shalit deals here with the notions of alchemy that so fascinated Jung. I was intrigued by the story of King Solomon as the wandering beggar and Shalit’s exploration of the life of the prophet Elijah.

In closing, I want to mention the cover art, a painting titled “Emerging” by Susan Bostrom-Wong, an artist and Jungian analyst. Shalit asks the reader to examine the images embedded in the human figure. It is well worth the time to do so. Like the book itself, the longer you look, the more you will see.

I urge educators, artists, and those in search of new paths toward a life well-lived to buy this book. I know that one of my own heroes, Joseph Campbell, certainly would.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Review of Jon Lipsky’s Dreaming Together: Explore Your Dreams by Acting Them Out (Larson Publications, www.larsonpublications.com, 2008)

“Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.”—Anaïs Nin

The relationship between dreams and our corporal existence on Earth is the meaty stuff of centuries of philosophical and theological discourse and Jon Lipsky—noted playwright, theatre professor, and leader of dream theatre workshops—has contributed a well-organized and vibrant new book to this ongoing discussion of the nature and meaning of the moving images that play on the cave walls of our sleep.

Geared for both the theatre practitioner looking to use dreams to enhance the study of acting and the non-theatre dreamer wishing to better explore the layered meanings and images of his or her dreams, Dreaming Together is divided into an Overview section and four parts, dealing with, respectively: (1) solo dream enactment, (2) ensemble dream enactment, (3) dramatic dream enactment, and (4) dream enactment in daily life.

Lipsky serves as an able guide throughout, providing a fine balance of dream examples, script examples, personal anecdotes, and instructional text. There is a minimum of jargon, from either theatrical or psychological perspectives, and the language is refreshingly frank and conversational. Lipsky’s considerable experience in conducting workshops around the world is clearly demonstrated from beginning to end.

The book begins with a list of dreams that appear in the book (fascinating reading in and of themselves for those who enjoy dream interpretation from a Jungian or other direction of approach) and a section entitled “How to Navigate this Book.”

The Prologue, “Theater of Dreams,” elucidates Lipsky’s approach to dream-work in no uncertain terms: “In my experience, the immediate value of dreams doesn’t come from explaining them, analyzing them, or following their overt or covert suggestions. It lies in re-entering them, living inside them, tasting and chewing them until they become incorporated into the fabric of our waking hours” (p. 14).

This quote might initially seem like it discounts the work of the analyst, but Lipsky is opening more doors than he is closing with this view. Indeed, it is all well and good to speak of our dreams over coffee with a partner or friend; consult the myriad books, websites, and instructional tools (card decks, etc.) on the subject of dream interpretation; or enlist the assistance of a skilled analyst to guide us to an interpretation from which we might derive meaning and healing, but this is the opening mile on a much longer journey.

Such is the value of this book.

Lipsky understands the key mechanisms of dreaming and dreams (he studied Embodied Dreamwork with Robert Bosnak, a world renowned expert on working with dreams and a diplomate of the C.G. Jung Institute), and by leaving behind any strictly psychological boundaries of interpretation is able to transfer them to the spaces of rehearsal and performance. The Prologue tells the reader everything needed to initially understand the Whys and Whats of the process, and key terms and ideas are all outlined in anticipation of the exercises that follow.

Part one, “Telling the Dream Story: Solo Dream Enactment,” is the section of the book aimed at the non-theatre practitioner, although theatre professionals will be well-served by the foundational material presented here. Lipsky again does a balancing act, presenting theatre and dream concepts in tandem. He is not only being efficient but making a case for the seamless partnership between Theatre and Dream-Work—a partnership I have been exploring for nearly 20 years.

Although I had been incorporating dreams into my work as a playwright, author, director, and educator for the first decade of my career, the deeper value of this approach was brought home to me in 2001–2002 when I had the opportunity to spend some time talking with Elyse Knight, artistic director of the Unlimited Potential Theatre Company in New Jersey, who was leading a group of actors in creating dream theatre. At that time I was doing a great deal of depth work to explore a shamanistic form of art using drum journeying, meditation, and trance (the results of which would come under “waking” or “lucid” dreams, as explicated by Lipsky in part four).

Through my solo experimenting and conversations with Elyse Knight, I began to more pointedly explore the overlap between spiritual/subconscious matter and the work of the theatre and how they can be utilized with the young people with which I work, many of whom are not actors, coming to many of the same conclusions as Lipsky has here. By demonstrating that we are all actors and inherently possess the actor’s skills, he makes the book accessible to a large audience—much larger than would be possible were Lipsky’s approach solely performance-centric.

The reader is taken through all the necessary steps: how to choose a dream to work with, strategies for recalling your dreams—including keeping a dream diary—and exercises for enactment, including the elements of sound, motion, and language. The first part concludes with a sample solo script.

Part two, “Creating the Dreamscape: Ensemble Dream Enactment,” begins to move the focus to the reader with experience in theatre. I recommend this part of the book especially to artistic directors, directors, and educators, as the fundamentals of building an ensemble are all here. I was reminded of Harold Clurman’s work with the Group Theater throughout. The exercises are well-explained and resonate on several levels, whether you choose to go the extra step of creating dream theatre or not. Sharing your dreams with people you don’t know well is a first step that will lead to the active listening and truthful responses key to a powerful, synergistic theatrical experience.

The sections on narrative (words) and collage (images) in dream-work bring a fresh, accessible perspective to the theoretical and practical ideas of theatre practitioners such as Artaud and Brecht. Heeding Lipsky’s advice to be wary of relying too heavily on “myths, archetypes, and cultural symbols” (because they can be misleading; fn 7, p. 106) will help the director and actor navigate the dense jungle that experimental/expressionistic forms of theatre more often than not place us within.

Equally as engaging are the sections on creating an “image score,” a rough draft, and undertaking rehearsal and performance. Once again, even if you never go on to actually stage a dream or series of dreams, the fundamentals in these sections are so sound and widely applicable to good playwriting, acting, and directing as to make this book nearly indispensable in the modern theatre (it is apt that Lipsky opens the rehearsal section with what he calls an “MTV-style of presentation”).

Part three, “Making Dream Theater: Dramatic Dream Enactment,” focuses on the nuts and bolts of putting together a dream show (Lipsky recently opened a Dream Café in Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA where he is practicing what he preaches in this book). Much here is drawn from the author’s own experiences, which makes for engaging and illustrative reading. From sequencing the dreams to creating the script, part three uses a generous amount of examples for maximum clarity and ease of use.

Key to this part of the book, and to the larger work of the theatre, is the section entitled “The Theatricality of Dreams,” which covers the real meat of the matter from the perspective of the writer, director, and actor. I have thoroughly marked up these half a dozen pages and anticipate referring to them often.

Part four broadens the perspective once again to the general reader interested in working with dreams. Entitled “Waking Dreams: Dream Enchantment in Daily Life,” this final section takes us out of the passive dreams of sleep and into the daydream and other forms of dreaming where the dreamer is aware of the images as they unfold. Readers interested in the material presented here can learn more by reading the books on active dreaming by Robert Moss.

As humankind races ever faster toward a new stage of existence brought on by the changes in the Earth’s environment, the global economic structure, and our relationship to the Universe and its innate intelligence—no matter the name(s) one chooses to give it—the ancestral/primitive forms of artistic exploration and expression are becoming once again crucial to our evolution and survival (in truth, their importance was never obsolete, just overlooked…).

The good work being done by Jon Lipsky, through Dreaming Together and the newly opened Dream Café, has created a remarkable set of tools that all people, whether working in the theatre and the arts or not, should being making use of to enhance their daily lives and the exploration of their dreams.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

“A Tour of Lands and Legends”: A Review of The InkerMen’s Green and Unpleasant Land (InkerMen Press, 2007)

Having read and reviewed some of the early InkerMen titles about a year ago (also posted here), I looked forward to this new anthology of stories from the self-labeled “Independent publishers of alternative fiction and criticism” with eager anticipation, and it did not disappoint.

Green and Unpleasant Land is a collection of tales and poems that “reimagine some of the stories and events of British legend and a want to write about places that had never been adequately mythologised” (back cover).

I should say up front that this review is an American’s take on a very British set of tales, so I’ll be framing some of the stories for U.S. audiences. For instance, I imagined many of them being read aloud by Jude Law or Paul Bettany, which helped me to glide easily into their pacing¬—almost all of the selections mix fantasy with humor (the old Monty Pythonesque “nudge, nudge, wink, wink”) and although many of the places and figures mentioned were unfamiliar to me, it did not detract from my enjoyment of the tales.

American or otherwise, I suggest that the reader take the time to read the very eloquent and interesting editors’ Preface¬—it situates this collection and the larger context of the InkerMen and gets us on our way.

The book contains 13 pieces, all of which contribute something specific to the editors’ overall aim—there are no rehashes or repetitions here. No fillers. I have chosen a handful of the most intriguing—at least to this author—to keep things manageable.

“Heirlooms,” by James Scott, is written with the same distinctive tone as his previous collection for The InkerMen, the Just Maybe…Stories, which I reviewed last year. Scott’s narrator employs a mischievous and entertaining voice that is as untrustworthy as it is wise. Memory is elastic in Scott’s stories and the gardens, fields, and people (especially the very precocious children) are never what they seem, for good or for bad. This is one you’ll want to read again and again.

“The Witch House of Canewdon,” a poem penned by The Governess, is a cautionary tale of a father who goes to great lengths to try and keep his daughter from growing up and having to face the treacheries of the world. Those who love Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”—and fathers whose daughters are rapidly approaching puberty—will especially enjoy this piece (I stand, at the present time, guilty on both counts).

Another InkerMen title I reviewed last year was D.P. Watt’s Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers, whose contribution to the present collection is called “They Dwell in Ystumtuen” (Ystumtuen being the location of lead and silver mines in late eighteenth- century Wales). Watt’s stories have the flavor of Lovecraft without being mere mimicry, and this tale of trickery and treachery, centering on the fate of a single mother fallen upon hard times, has a shocking execution ending that calls to mind Suskind’s Perfume and L.A. Morse’s The Flesh Eaters.

“Double Meanings,” by S.J. Davies, is a well-crafted story of abundant childbirth across generations with a good bit of numerology and multi-leveled meanings (considerably more than advertised in the title) that invite numerous reads.

The next notable story, entitled “A Perfect World,” is by Matt Morrison. It’s one of the more originally conceived and executed stories I have read in quite some time. It’s one of the shorter pieces in the collection, but it packs significant emotional punch from beginning to end with its competing tensions of building suspense while its narrator vehemently denies its doing so. Morrison also gives us an ending that begs a moment or two of contemplation and (especially) self-reflection…

In “Document 16a. Within the Rubric of an Electric Postman,” Antony Pickthall provides a multi-layered postmodern style that is rich in imagery and hidden meaning. With its use of both language and footnotes, “Document 16a.” brings to mind the works of Jose Luis Borges, while both the title and tone echo Philip K. Dick. The story demands a careful, considered reading and is ultimately well worth the effort. I intend to go back to it every few months until all its meaning has been gleaned.

“Confessing Ruins,” by Julian Wolfreys, is a poem paying homage to London in the tradition of Jacques Raubaud’s language poems about Paris and Alan Moore’s tour of the city beneath the city through the eyes of Dr. Gull in From Hell. The poem paints the city as a puzzle to be deciphered, with the author’s own specificities (including several of her photographs intermingled with the poem) providing a set of points in a more general landscape. For those readers, like me, not familiar with some of the names and phrases, a little research provides a good bit of illumination. Wolfreys’ skill with language, rhythm, and image is considerable.

Peter DeVille resurrects the legend of Leir (Shakespeare’s Lear) in “Montsorel.” Readers who love the Bard’s caustic king and who may be familiar with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (as well as those interested in Grail imagery) will find a great deal here to enjoy, while the fine writing and pace will also make this an excellent read for more general readers.

“The Chalk Man,” penned by Stephen Loveless, is an interesting tale within a tale with a strong, satisfying ending. The spookiest story in the bunch, it unfortunately suffers from a consistent problem of long, winding sentences and grammatical construction that makes it hard to submerge yourself into the world Loveless creates. A guiding editorial hand, especially in the middle section, would help for later editions.

The editors, in my estimation, certainly saved the best for last. I thoroughly enjoyed Robert John Brocklehurst’s multi-era story, “The Flat of the Land.” Employing a parade of vivid and entertaining characters, Brocklehurst provides political, social, and economic commentary worthy of the recently deceased George Carlin with the seemingly simple device of examining numerous interactions over some 400 years on a single plot of well-trod land. As you note the overlaps, cross-commentaries, and contradictions across time, you’ll no doubt appreciate it’s not very simple at all. He makes good use of a play-script dialogue format, allowing his skill with vernacular and characterization to fully shine. The Pythonesque word play is particularly enjoyable and I especially appreciated the irony of a failed Hamburg music promoter considering the role Hamburg played in the early career of the Beatles.

I hope that this review has captured the varied styles and strengths of Green and Unpleasant Land. A quick look through the “Notes on Conspirators” will show potential readers just how talented and professional this group of writers really is. There are professors, writers, artists, and accomplished individuals of all kinds.

InkerMen Press is building a catalog of books that is noteworthy on many levels and I look forward to reading and reviewing their 2008 anthology, Land’s End, soon.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Beyond this Fine Façade: A Review of Kit Berry’s Magus of Stonewylde (Moongazy Publishing, 2005, www.stonewylde.com)

The marketing verbiage for this book, the first in a series of five planned novels in the Stonewylde series (two others have already been published), states: “Not thriller, nor fantasy, nor romance. Yet all of these and so much more.”

Although seasoned readers and reviewers learn to not spend too much thought or energy on short, powerful statements designed to spark interest and excitement, in this case, the cross-genre aspects of this book make it both noteworthy and worth a read. Berry has rendered the boundaries of several genres invisible, pulling elements from each to build her vivid world, and still manages to present a tight, well-crafted story. At 304 pages, Magus of Stonewylde is a quick, page-turning read.

Stonewylde is a fascinating place—a closed community in England, where the fair-haired, fair-eyed Hallfolk are supported by the working-class, peasant Villagers. Structured around the eight pagan festivals that mark the cycles of the year, Stonewylde seems to offer a remedy to the fast-paced, impersonal, material world. It is a place of great power and healing, full of wizards and shamans. A place where sexual intercourse is a path to the Goddess. A place where the Ancient Ways are alive and somewhat well.

If much of this sounds familiar, from both page and screen, keep reading—Berry brings plenty that is fresh and new to the table. Stonewylde is a garden teeming with Evil. Among her beautiful rock formations, ceremonial fields, and deep woods are dark energies and a past of twisted secrets. Berry teases us, as a good author does, with bits of information and history that will guarantee we come back to visit Stonewylde in the subsequent books.

I found myself deeply interested in the characters, even going so far as to scribble expletives and less than flattering monikers for some of the less likable ones in the margins.

Be prepared to be pissed off (and I mean that as a selling point of the book)—the teenagers are vacillating, ego-maniacal, and as quick to tease and scheme as any teenagers I’ve ever met on the page (they’re very realistic)… and the “adults” are something to behold—those who should Protect inflict the greatest Hurt and their actions are often shockingly ignorant and cruel. I found myself pushing other things back so I could read “a few more pages” to find out just when those actions would be paid back in kind. I know of no better compliment than that.

Berry really does have a knack for creating multidimensional and moving characters. She has succeeded with the simple formula so many writers fail to make work—she has done her research to create a well-painted environment easy to enter and explore; she has populated it with characters that jump off the page with their humanness, for good and for bad—often in the same character; and she has energized it all with the key themes that resonate most with readers—Love, Power, Violence, Secrecy, and Destiny.

Magus of Stonewylde has wide appeal—for those still lamenting the end of the Harry Potter series, this is a magical world populated with the types of quirky teens and scheming adults that made those books such a success; for those who are interested in or practitioners of pagan/wiccan rites, this is a place custom-made for you to visit; and for those who just plain love a good story, with excellent pace and plenty of blood-rising action, you can’t do much better.

I look forward to exploring more of Stonewylde—Kit Berry is an author that will no doubt be enjoying a continual increase in readership and accolades.

I highly recommend visiting www.stonewylde.com. It is one of the better small press author websites I’ve come across. There is plenty of information on the author and books, including an interesting biography and a list of print, signing, and radio appearances, an online store where you can get Stonewylde merchandise, and synopses of the other books.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Meet Harvey Goldner—A Review of The Resurrection of Bert Ringold

(Cinco Puntos Press, 2008, www.cincopuntos.com)

“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.” —Oscar Wilde

“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”—Harvey Goldner, “Another Ancient Mariner”

I never met Harvey Goldner, and now it’s too late.

Harvey, who passed from this Plane in July of 2007, was a poet and personality loved by many—mostly in Seattle, where his death has left a void in the poetry scene, underground and otherwise. But elsewhere as well.

I was first introduced to his work in late 2007, when I received a review copy of Letterhead, Volume 1, a collection of poems put out by Highest Hurdle Press. Within its pages was a tribute to Harvey in the form of a series of letter-poems exchanged between he and the Buffalo, NY–based poet Robert Pomerhn. In reading those letters, I was struck by Harvey’s brutal honesty as he tried (and succeeded) to help shape and mature the art of a hard-working and talented wordsmith. He was perfect amounts of praise and brutality, all conveyed in layers of meaning, metaphor, and reality that reminded me of the letters of the Beats or the correspondence I’ve had with Colorado-based poet-musician Patrick Porter. Whether writing as Harvey the sage, Gob Wah or Dr. Roarshock (Roarshock being the name of the journal he put out), he mixed humor with scholarship and astute analysis, suggesting a wide breadth of poets whom Robert should read and making such adept comments as liking Artaud and Camus more than Breton and Sartre because the latter pair were “Stalinist bullies.”

Given his deep, almost boundless, knowledge of other poets and styles of poetry, as evidenced in his letters to Pomerhn and in the poems of Bert Ringold, it was striking to me that Bobby Byrd, co-publisher at Cinco Puntos Press and childhood and late adulthood friend of Harvey Goldner, wrote in his Blog that Harvey is rejected out of hand by academics and that this book of poetry would not sell well.

The latter notion I more than understand, having been part of the Small and Independent Poetry Press for many years now, but Byrd’s initial statement—rejection by academics—is of great concern to me. In a perfect world where poetry sold as well as the factory-template novels of Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson, there would be no exclusion of a poet’s worth based on his or her small reach and lack of formal education (read PhD) or because he or she was not old enough or dead enough to be a part of the narrow Canon to which “institutionalized” students of poetry are formally exposed.

I am lucky to mentor promising poets at the high school and college level, most of whom attend selective schools for the arts and I think that they are lucky as well, because, as Harvey did with Pomerhn, I make it my mission to introduce them to not only the well-known poets (many of whom still aren’t being read in “ivy-walled, lecture halls,” to semi-quote Eddie and the Cruisers) but to the most talented of the Small Press poets. And there are many. It is always a memorable day in workshop when I bound into the room with my box or bags full of chapbooks and other Small Press publications and dump them in a pile on the floor, saying, “Dig in. And when you read things you like, go out and buy them. Contact the authors, make a connection! These folks do it for the sheer love of it.”

Harvey Goldner’s book, The Resurrection of Bert Ringold, is going to the top of the pile next session, where it will no doubt remain for many years to come.

Now, to the poems.

It is a credit to the talent of Harvey Goldner that, having read through the book twice, and some poems even more, that I feel somewhat ill equipped to try and define or analyze any of the writing in this collection (poems such as “Merrily, Merrily” invite months, if not years, of reflection). Nor do I feel in this case that such an approach would be what Harvey would want. He operates as a sort of prophet-philosopher in the tradition of Blake, and depth-diving into the psychic layers of his word-pool takes more time than deadlines will allow.

Instead, I will share my insights and reactions to the collection overall and talk about specific titles, lines, and themes as appropriate.

In general, Harvey’s storytelling style of poetry reminds me of insightful travelers the likes of Harry Chapin and Johnny Cash. It is readily apparent that Harvey made it his business—as a poet, artist, and person—to get to know all types of people. The opening poems: “Apocalypse September 1994,” “The Resurrection of Bert Ringold” (a friend of Harvey’s who was schizophrenic and committed suicide), “Memphis Jack,” and “War and Peace” were well-selected by the editor to introduce the unfamiliar reader with Harvey’s style.

For a sense of Harvey’s ability to mix high artistry with humor, I suggest “We Went Speeding, Memphis 1972.” It’s best read aloud, allowing the sounds to color the images being sketched. Follow that up with “Buddy Harley’s Longgone Drunkcheck Blues” and make note of the turnaround he does on the lucky number 7, because it is one of the keys to his whole blessedly topsy-turvy take on things.

For the poetry and creative writing teachers out there, spend a few hours working through “Ancient Pilot” with your students (after working through it a few days for yourself). At 10 pages, the poem is multi-layered, well-structured, and full of striking images.

“A Mardi Gras of the Mind,” although stylistically dissimilar from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind,” not only calls attention to Harvey’s extensive knowledge of other poets (the opening quote is from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene; he also mentions Bukowski and Whitman) but painters as well (Jackson Pollack; “Colossal Botticelli angel nipple stiff like a pencil eraser”), as Ferlinghetti was both.

This collection is full of nods and winks like that. There’s “La Belle D.C. Sans Money,” with its Keatsian main character “squeezed into the gold lamé of life.” And in another poem he references Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, termed by many the “cornerstone of modernism”; what André Breton (ironic, given Harvey’s less than like of his communist bullyism) called “the core of Picasso’s laboratory.”

In another poem he references the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova; calls to mind, with a little Latin, Dante, Daniel, Eliot, and Pound; and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (played, in this case, “with a country twang”).

Again, to all you teachers of writing out there looking for new material to share with your students, Harvey’s poetry opens the doors to so many other forms of art that it’s impossible to rationalize not using it in the creative learning space.

Harvey’s style was broad—in addition to the takes and homages I have already mentioned, his “Big Pig” uses language and rhythm in a way reminiscent of the great HS Thompson.

I could go on and on—“A Wild Rose Romance” is another longish poem that takes numerous readings to fully appreciate and, thanks to its perfect placement by Bobby Byrd, reflects back on many of the recurring images and themes of the previous 100 pages of poetry.

To complete the volume there are 51 more pages of poems, all working at the levels and with the artistry I’ve already illustrated; and an interview with Harvey that appeared in the final issue of Duckabush Journal and a one-page biography by Bobby Byrd, both of which serve to further illuminate the quirky genius of this all-too obscure poet.

Summer’s fast approaching, and I can think of no better volume of poetry to spend the sunny months reading, rereading, deciphering, and enjoying than Harvey Goldner’s The Resurrection of Bert Ringold.

The void he’s left as a poet-philosopher is much wider than Seattle, as I hope will be his posthumous reach.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bytes of Blake: A Review of Douglas McDaniel’s 23 Roads to Mythville

In the vast, multi-layered landscape of My Space, it’s easy to get lost. Overwhelmed. As I navigate endless pages of avatars looking for Kindred Spirits, Wise Ones, Ether Inspirations, and new readers, I sometimes wonder just why in the hell I’m wasting my time. As I plunge deeper and deeper into the ice-cold cybersea or walk further and further into the tangled forest of ads, angst, and often false appearances, I search my mental pockets for the crumbling crumbs of bread that may lead me back from the witch’s house that I know I’ll one day find.

The best I can do while I’m out there is find some worthy artists to read and review.

I “met” poet and essayist Douglas McDaniel through an e-mail he sent me about a Blog I had written concerning the Illuminati. After surfing his My Space I ordered his book 23 Roads to Mythville, a collection of autobiographical and other essays dealing with the nexus of Spirit and Technology in this new age.

The language and rhythm come at you at an accelerated rate in some fine rapid-fire wordsmithing, reflecting the author’s energy and drive in talking about the topics that most move him (curiously, he refers to himself with an impersonal, third-person “McDaniel”). Even when he is using a lot of jargon and “spiritual vocabulary,” for lack of a better phrase, he writes with an overall clarity and style that doesn’t leave the reader behind.

The book looks at Progress and Growth both personally and on a Universal scale, mostly against the backdrop of the cyberspace revolution. I see the author as a not-quite-middle-aged Seeker who makes his journeys both physically (driving cross-country from Colorado to New England) and internally. He links both of these journeys to the ever-expanding leviathan of the Internet and the invisible tendrils that link lovers and strangers who are plugged into it.

Part of his journey is in pursuit of the Sacred Feminine in the form of physical love, which recalls to mind the novels of Mel Matthews, all of which I have had the pleasure to read and review. After a marriage based on youthful naiveté falls apart, the older, wise man goes in search of something Greater.

Enter the Sacred Feminine.

All of the stories/essays in the book are multilayered and tied into the main themes I’ve already discussed. Along the way McDaniel talks about the Illuminati, William Blake, MMO gaming, the cyber explosion, the necessity of multi-tasking, and his personal experiences of it all.

I also enjoyed the recurring story of three bored New Englanders who find and fire an old cannon.

If you are a fan of such modern thinkers of the mythological/spiritual as Robert Anton Wilson and Joseph Campbell, there is much here for you. I especially recommend the final two essays, “The Rise and Fall of the Human Search Engines” (those of you who need to Google yourself just to see where your creative works are winding up need to read this one) and “William Blake in Cyberspace.”

23 Roads to Mythville is available through lulu.com. You can learn more about Douglas McDaniel at his MySpace page (appropriately): myspace.com/mythville

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Review of Highest Hurdle Press’s Letterhead Volume #1

(Highest Hurdle Press, 2007, $15.00)

Highest Hurdle Press’s latest collection of poetry, Letterhead Volume #1, is a collection of poetry in three sections—the first is a selection of nationally known small and independent press poets, including Mark Sonnenfeld and Joe Verrilli; the next section is an exchange of letters and poems between co-editor Robert Pomerhn and Roarshock editor Harvey Goldner (to whom the volume is dedicated); the third section includes selections by, as the introduction states, “Buffalo [NY] poets and the far-flung members of the Buffalo diaspora.”

Over the course of the three sections, which together present about 75 pieces from 33 poets, we get a little bit of everything (I once again quote the introduction): “confessional poetry, spoken word/slam poetry, vispo, experimental verse, mail art, correspondence, found poetry, political poetry, and collage.”

This seems like a great expanse of styles to contain in one collection, but Highest Hurdle Press seems able to do this just about as well as any poetry publisher out there. One of their central poets (and a co-editor of this volume), Robert Pomerhn, is expansive in his styles, as demonstrated as his HHP title from 2006, “Abuse Art, Not Children.” (I recently reviewed all three of Pomerhn’s books. You can find the review elsewhere on this site.) The secret to their success is that passion and artistic commitment trump a focus on genre, a practice that makes this volume well worth the $15.00 cover price.

The poems are laid out strategically by subject matter, either mirroring one another thematically or through counterpoint, which both strengthens the pieces and the overall unity of the book.

The editors made the choice to not have the authors’ names with their poems. This creates a little frustration having to flip back and forth between the poems and the Table of Contents to see who wrote what, but it also solidifies the community feel of the collection.

The most notable section is the middle, which features an exchange of letters and poems between east-coaster Pomerhn and west-coaster Harvey Goldner, who passed away in 2007. The selections span the time period 2002–2005, and cover the initial submission process and later submissions Pomerhn went through to have his poems published over the years in Goldner’s Roarshock. Goldner was a true poet-philosopher and the feedback and insights he gives Pomerhn should be required reading for any poet. Plan on numerous reads of this section, as there is much to be gleaned.

Goldner will certainly be missed.

Another notable element of this volume is the stunning visual poetry (created in part by contributing editors Bradley Lastname, Brian McMahon, and Eric Johnt). This is some of the best “vispo” I have seen come out of the small and independent press and it is a joy to have it all collected in one place.

Some of the most compelling individual poems in the collection are, in this reviewer’s opinion: “Poetry Rats” by Santa Cruz poet Christopher Robin; “Like Butterflies” by Cambridge, Mass. poet Mark Pawlak; “Killing Season” by Charles P. Ries (Milwaukee); and the poems of Buffalo-area poets Matt Zelasko and D.S. Ephland.

Any student of poetry in modern America should feel compelled to read this collection.

Copies of Letterhead, Volume #1 can be purchased by e-mailing Bradley Lastname at bradleylastname@hotmail.com or Robert Pomerhn at pomerhn.robert@gmail.com