Sunday, August 16, 2009

“The Perils of a Prophecy”: A Review of Kit Berry’s Solstice at Stonewylde

(Moongazy Publishing, 2007, www.stonewylde.com) by Joey Madia

In the past two years I have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the first two books in the Stonewylde series, Magus of Stonewylde and Moondance of Stonewylde. With the plot well in motion and the stakes raised to an almost unbearable height, I eagerly began reading what was to be the final book in the cycle, Solstice at Stonewylde.

It did not disappoint.

The most psychological of the three books, Solstice slows down the action as compared to the first two, considering the larger issues of power and wealth and just how far a person will go to obtain them. What is willingly left behind, what natural alliances are so easily broken, just how much of a price in soul and spirit we find ourselves willing to pay are all explored through scenes of mental and physical torture that leave the reader hoping that some heroic character will come bursting through the door to save the day.

But just like in life, no one comes, because no one can.

I want to tread carefully here, and in no way reveal plot points that might ruin the reader’s experience, so please forgive the generalities. As a fan of the trilogy, and of Kit Berry’s considerable skill and imagination, I will refrain from dwelling on content and focus instead on form.

The exploration of numerous story lines at once, in the great Tolkienesque tradition, is employed in Solstice with more irregularity and yet more power than in the previous two books. Long stretches of text focus on a pair of characters, driving home their isolation and alliance and literally leaving other key characters out in the growing cold; characters we feel for all the more for their absence.

I was very pleased with the revealing of secrets in the book. This is immensely difficult over the course of a trilogy, as so much information must be shared by the author and so many IOUs that were written to the reader (as my college writing professor would say) must be paid that it is hard not to employ a load of misdirection. As in life, some secrets were no surprise at all, and others were all the more surprising for having resided with characters who played seeming second fiddle throughout the previous books. As a writer who works in this genre, I learned a lot about how to make this work.

A few words must be said about the fulfillment of the prophecy that hangs especially sharp over the second book. Again, prophecies, related as they are to the creation and unveiling of secrets, are hard to do well, as evidenced by the seventh Potter book. Inevitability is darned hard to make interesting, and yet it is what the writer must do. Kudos to Kit Berry for doing it well.

In the closing chapters, Berry uses some interesting changes in voice and perspective as events are reaching their climax. These techniques serve the story well, enhancing and heightening the drama without resorting to a bunch of sidelines to drag things out.

As I said in the opening, this was to be the final book in the series, but there is a note at the end of Solstice informing readers that we can expect two more. Refreshingly, all will not be cozy and kind at Prophecy’s end.

With such a strong concept, magical land, and so many aspects of the vivid characters of Stonewylde still waiting to be explored, why should it be?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Review of Journey to the Heart, by Nora Caron (2008, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com)

A Review of Journey to the Heart, by Nora Caron (2008, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com)


In this time of complexity and endless challenge, I have come to truly appreciate a good, well-told tale of spiritual quest and growth.

Journey to the Heart, by debut novelist Nora Caron, is just such a book.

Her main character, Lucina (“illumination”; the Roman goddess of childbirth), has a lousy job, an overbearing mother, and a poor history with men. Needing to get away and gain some perspective, she goes to Mexico City.

Fans of the Mel Mathews books LeRoi, Menopause Man, and Samsara (also from Fisher King Press) may recognize what could easily pass for the female Malcolm Clay. Here she is, in a country not her own (she is Canadian) and she is crass and sarcastic, disparaging the ways and customs of the locals and asking herself such things about her host as “Did she want to murder her? Turn her into a human burrito or something?” (p. 16). This is in reference to Señora Labotta, a mystical woman whom Lucina thinks of initially as a “witch.”

The good Señora, undaunted by Lucina’s ignorance (“Canadians … You are all the same. You do not get it right way: too intellectual, too caught up in the head…”; p. 15) invites her to camp on her land, earning her keep by tending to the garden. Soon after, she meets Teleo (“logic”), the son of the Señora, who is training to be a medicine man. Lucina immediately falls for him.

No doubt the reader sees where this is going. And in many ways, it does. Caron adds some interesting devices to spice it up and keep it new, though. There is the constant voice of her therapist, Dr. Field, which plays both confirmation and counterpoint to what Señora Labotta and Teleo try to teach Lucina. This seesawing of perspectives is nowhere stronger than in Lucina’s heart, and, again like Malcolm Clay, she is given to taking two steps forward and three steps back.

There is also a considerable portion of the last half of the book that consists of Lucina sharing the details of her past losses in love. While somewhat unexpected, this device works well, mostly because the stories are interesting and easy to relate to (the Señora says “your love stories are humanity’s stories,” p. 193). This, I think, is the point of Lucina’s vacillations and at times frustrating density. She is like most of us—wanting change but so afraid to do what it takes to make it happen; to seize the opportunities put before us by larger forces, so we retreat to well-worn paths and old mistakes.

My favorite parts of the novel had to do with the trips Lucina and Teleo take to ancient Mesoamerican sites, and the cultural/historical information that Caron shares through them. The symbols that are sprinkled throughout the book become concentrated in these sections, giving the reader an opportunity to consider them deeply at times while always having them in the background at others.

The novel’s end is far from definitive, which again made me think of the Malcolm Clay trilogy and how things in the real world never really are. The constant push and pull of our “calling” or “fate” or “path” is a complicated process, which Journey to the Heart succeeds in capturing, offering the reader ample incentive to keep on trying to get there.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

“A Guiding Light in Interesting Times”: A Review of The Toltec I Ching: 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World

by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden (Larson Publications, 2009, www.larsonpublications.com)


There is an ancient Eastern curse that says “May you live in interesting times.”

A quick glance at the daily headlines tells us that, a decade or so into the twenty-first century, these times certainly fit the bill.

As an artist who uses the principles of shamanism and aspects of other spiritual systems to both create and to teach, I am always looking for new sources of inspiration and insight. As a father, husband, and mentor to young people, I am continually seeking means to clarification and ways of making sense and gaining peace in highly stressful and complicated times.

Over the past two decades, I have found ways of using tarot, runes, and other devices to help. I have stayed away from the I Ching because of all the many tools for insight and divination, I have found the hexagrams and casting of the coins to be complicated and hard to make sense of.

The authors of The Toltec I Ching, Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden, have changed that with this brand new book. I found their text both enlightening and easy to follow, and their approach of marrying a Chinese system with a Mesoamerican one yields abundant fruit.

First, a few words about the authors. Ramirez-Oropeza, according to the dust cover, is “a mural painter, a performer in popular theatre, and a researcher/lecturer of the Nahuatl pre-Hispanic codices of Mexico.” Nahuatl, according to several sources, is a language that traces back to the Aztecs. The word itself is translated as “good, clear sound.” Horden “has researched indigenous divinatory systems of ancient China and Mexico with passion and independence since 1969. He is steeped in the shamanic world view.”

Perhaps it is because the authors and I are kindred spirits that the book spoke so clearly and resonantly to me. We certainly do come from similar paths. The promotional materials sent by the publisher reference The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and the Peaceful Warrior books by Dan Millman, which sit well-worn and many-times-read on my bookshelf. They have become old friends, as The Toltec I Ching no doubt shall.

What is new and key to this book is the focus on Balance. East and West, Masculine and Feminine, the 64 hexagram paintings and descriptions move away from the male, aristocratic biases that have mired the I Ching in the past, and call strongly upon the feminine creative principle in providing much-needed guidance.

The book, with its Mesoamerican influences, also situates its contents in the coming of December 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendar ends one age in anticipation of another. Writers such as John Major Jenkins and Daniel Pinchbeck see 2012 as the doorway to a new evolutionary and spiritual time for humanity, and I hope that this book will join with theirs to help educate those who have misunderstood 2012 as a time of cataclysm and Armageddon. A quick scroll through the History Channel listings or the anticipation around a new movie coming out this December illustrate that for every philosopher-shaman that sees 2012 as a time of opportunity and positive change there are others who want to use it to breed fear and make a few dollars playing into it.

Now to the substance of the book.

The opening material is clear, concise, and uplifting. The “Introduction” details all of the aspects of the authors’ process and rationale for combining the two systems that I have thus far mentioned. The “Casting and Interpreting the Oracle” section takes the reader through the process from casting the coins to producing the hexagrams that will guide the reading. As I mentioned, there is no complicated language or convoluted steps as one often finds in previous I Ching manuals. I was casting my first coins not very long after cracking the spine.

The hexagram paintings are, in a word, beautiful. For me, this is important, as I use half a dozen different decks of tarot for inspiration and creation, all chosen for the meditative and conscious dreaming potential of their artwork. The paintings translate the Toltec tenets, symbols, and ways of living into spiritually stimulating visuals that merge with the prose explanations on several levels of resonation.

The text explanations are broken into sections that will be familiar to users of the tarot. They are Image, Interpretation, Action, Intent, and Summary. I have found, after multiple readings, that the Line Change explanations that follow these sections, which have confused me in past experiences with the I Ching, offer action-oriented guidance for bridging the present and future aspects of each reading. Being that I have come to see divinatory tools as “organizing principles” as I seek help in fulfilling my many roles, the Line Change explanations are one of the highlights of the book.

I have used The Toltec I Ching to gain clarity and direction for several important aspects of my life that are sitting on the cusp of vital change in the past several weeks and I find it to be a great help. I have come away from a reading feeling empowered, with a heart full of guiding principles to apply as I navigate my way through the personal, professional, global, and universal changes that are at work in my life.

I heart-fully recommend this book to users of divinatory tools, those interested in the symbol systems of the Toltecs, Aztecs, and Mayans, and those who see or wish to see 2012 and the twenty-first century as a time, not of curses and apocalypse, but of great opportunity for humanity to enter a new and blessed phase of existence.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Review of Nota Bene Eiswein, by Eileen R. Tabios (ahadada books, 2009)

Eileen Tabios is a poetic force to be reckoned with.

Since 1996 she has written or edited some 30 poetry, short story, and prose collections. Her own press, Meritage, is continually producing groundbreaking, vital poetry that not only explores new realms of poetic expression, such as the hay(na)ku, which she invented, but brings a multicultural, Diasporic voice to the forefront of modern poetics.

Her latest collection, Nota Bene Eiswein, continues to mine new areas of inspiration, as she “excavates” the writings of the poet Christian Hawkey and the novelist Sara Bird.

The title, translated as “Note Well Ice Wine,” is explained in the Notes to Poems on page 109, as well as the source material and methods Tabios worked from to create the two halves of this collection, titled “Ice: Behind the Eyelet Veil” and “Wine—The Singer and Others—Flamenco Hay(na)ku.”

In “Ice,” Tabios works in a number of forms, using Hawkey’s poetry as a launching point while mixing in additional source material as she works. Examples include everything from randomly opening and then quoting from Carol Drinkwater’s The Olive Harvest to lyrics pulled from the 2008 “American Idol” finals. This kind of playfulness and spontaneity in the midst of complex forms and techniques makes Tabios’ poetry accessible in ways that it might otherwise miss.

“Wine” is all about flamenco (“the music of drunkards and prostitutes,” p. 56), opening with a quote from Federico Garcia Lorca and employing its hay(na)ku structure to created a heat-filled, energetic, and whirlwind representation of the spirited dance that is its subject. Within these fiery ink-songs we learn about the Flamenco Ten Commandments (seven of which must not be revealed to outsiders) and such illustrious practitioners as Carmen Amaya, whose talent led her to the big screen as well as to Washington, DC, where she danced for FDR and Harry Truman. The poems “Sangre Negra/Black Blood,” “Dark Freedom,” and “Bait the Dark Angel By” are the highlights of this section.

In reading and reviewing several of Eileen Tabios’ collections, I have often been struck by her ability to take large themes and subjects, such as Diaspora and flamenco, and bring them around to her own vision and mission as a poet and artist. In “The Singer” she writes,

the worst thing
one can
say

about someone in
flamenco? No
me

dice nada. He
didn’t say
anything

to me… (pg. 68)

On the facing page, directly opposite, she writes,

…Do
you know
what

would be the
worst thing
said

about my poetry?
I created
nothing

that moved you.

Her passion and efforts for connection with the reader make all the difference here. Although Tabios is coming from a place of High Art, there is nothing ivory tower about her poetics. This is a balance that both the street poets and academics should be seeking if we are to revitalize our worth as poets.

In the poem “As If the Poet Loves Everything and Everyone” the parallels between poetry and flamenco are explored more fully, twisting and turning around the line “So dance me a poem.”

Dance me a poem. Are we as poets—and as readers—able to take that challenge?

“Wine” ends with the beautifully rendered story-poem “La Loca,” a piece that had my mind racing with thoughts of multimedia stagings in a place where spoken words meet music, imagery, shadow and light, in a culmination of what Tabios has explored in previous pages.

Nota Bene Eiswein ends with a two-page exploration of “Tattoo Poetics,” yet another new form that has come out of the creative atmosphere that exists because of Eileen Tabios and her willingness to “excavate” unexplored mines of material and meaning.

Monday, July 20, 2009

“Of Myth and Mary Poppins”: A Review of A Lively Oracle: A Centennial Celebration of P. L. Travers

edited by Ellen Dooling Draper and Jenny Koralek (Published for the Paul Brunton Philosophic Society by Larson Publications, 1999, www.larsonpublications.com)

Everyone knows Disney’s Mary Poppins, but what of Mary’s creator, P. L. Travers? Due to the at-times questionable magic of Walt Disney and company, authors are often separated from their works. Ask most people who authored The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Tarzan and you might just get a blank-faced stare.

In the case of P. L. Travers, this wonderful collection of twenty essays (three by Travers herself) not only reconnects the author with her most famous work, but illuminates the vibrant thoughts, expressive writing, and lifetime of exploration into myths, fairy tales, and folklore that were the true passions of this gifted writer.

A Lively Oracle is divided into six parts (Biographical Notes; Mary Poppins; The Other Books; Themes; Conversations, Lectures, Interviews; and Three Articles by P.L. Travers) book-ended by an Introduction penned by Dooling Draper and an Afterword (Pamela Travers from A–Z) cleverly crafted by Koralek.

Dooling Draper’s Introduction sets the stage, giving the reader glimpses into the breadth and scope of Travers’ life and outlining the vast terrain to be covered. In these few pages we meet a private woman who asked in her will that no biographies be written about her. Instead, the editors have gathered an impressive array of authors, editors, and friends who knew Travers professionally and personally to shed some light on her life.

Part One: Biographical Notes comprises two essays, which are an invaluable resource in understanding Travers’ origins and influences. Born in the Australian outback at the fin de siècle, she spent some time as a dancer and actress in a traveling theatre company before going to Dublin, where she met such luminaries as A.E., Yeats, and Bernard Shaw. She would later meet the mystic and author G.I. Gurdjieff and receive a secret name from Navajo elders. In 1976 she became involved with Parabola, the Magazine of Myth and Tradition, culminating in the 1988 publication of What the Bee Knows, wherein many of her essays were collected.

Part Two contains two essays on Mary Poppins by co-editor Jenny Koralek and Brian Sibley, respectively. Koralek’s piece looks at the six books in the series and their relationship to the Disney film. In a broader sense, the essay explores the mythic/shamanic underpinnings of Poppins and her creator. Those who love the Mary Poppins stories will no doubt want to go back and revisit them after reading this illuminating piece.

Brian Sibley’s contribution elaborates on the Disney adaptation and Travers’ role in the journey. Sibley is in a unique position to discuss this intriguing tale of artistic wills—he worked with Travers on a script for a never-produced sequel to the film. Having won six Oscars and the hearts of millions of children and adults, with a memorable set of songs and charming performances by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, the film version of Mary Poppins is, in and of itself, one of the best movie musicals ever made. What is of interest here is just how different the film is from the intent of the author. Travers, who served as a consultant on the film (in title, at least), resisted relinquishing the rights for a full decade after meeting Walt Disney, and Sibley details “many tempestuous meetings” between Travers and the production staff, although she seems to have been quite fond of Julie Andrews.

Part Three, entitled “Other Books,” considers, respectively, Friend Monkey (about the Indian Monkey King Hanuman), About the Sleeping Beauty, and The Fox at the Manger. The authors of these essays do a wonderful job of providing analysis not so much for its own academic sake but rather intrinsically linked to the influences and themes buzzing around Travers.

The fourth part, entitled “Themes,” expands on Travers’ fascination with the world of myth. The first essay, by co-editor Dooling Draper, looks back on Travers’ contributions to Parabola. Over the course of 15 years she contributed over 40 articles and stories. From the point of view of the essential elements of myths and why they are so vital to a fully lived life, this essay is a highlight of the book. The third essay in this section is an extended culinary metaphor called “A Writer Worth Her Salt” by the aptly named Rob Baker that illuminates Travers’ editorial relationship and input with the Parabola staff. This essay is a rich companion to Sibley’s on the Disney version of Mary Poppins because Travers always had plenty to say about how things were done and was not always gracious when ignored. It was interesting to read that despite her long and ongoing relationship with Parabola, half a dozen of her potential contributions were rejected and also that as protective as she was of her own writing style and word choice, she was not one to edit others’ writing. She instead chose to focus on the overall vision and direction of the journal. The essays by Trebbe Johnson and Feenie Ziner that conclude the “Themes” section are equally entertaining and enlightening.

Part Five serves as a bridge between others writing about P.L. Travers and the final section, which presents some of her works. The three contributors to this section share their excerpts of conversations and interviews with Travers with an unmitigated joy and respect that truly brings home the tremendous impact that she had on so many people. Jonathan Cotts’ reminiscences about her garden I found particularly touching.

The three articles chosen to represent Travers’ writing in Part Six (beyond the cornucopia of excerpts that were used to this point) give the reader a chance to become immersed in a gifted, giving mind. The first, “I Never Wrote for Children,” is essential reading for writers who produce materials—picture books, films, plays, etc.—for younger audiences. As a playwright and novelist, I found myself in agreement with all that Travers’ had to say. “Myth, Symbol, and Tradition,” a transcription of a Travers lecture at the Far West Institute and “The Fairy-Tale as Teacher” rank with the best essays of Campbell, Eliade, Bettelheim, Bly and other perhaps better-known thinkers and writers.
For the writer and reader who goes daily swimming in the depths of myth, fair-tale, and folklore, this collection—and the broad range of works by its intriguing subject—will be a resource gone back to again and again.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Review of Michaela Sefler’s Gems

(2009, Baltimore: Publish America, www.publishamerica.com)

by Joey Madia

The subtitle of Michaela Sefler’s most recent collection (she is the author of almost a dozen books of poems) is “Metaphysical Poetry,” a genre which has long held interest for me.

The poems read as though they were channeled by the author in a somewhat altered state—certainly a place of openness and peace—derived either through meditation or deep breathing, allowing the words to flow like a calm, tranquil river. There are no politically or socially jarring works here. Everything is Prayer. They have titles such as “Yellow Jasper,” “The Magician,” and “Equinox.”

The poems are all set center-spaced, marking a landscape wherein the author takes us on numerous journeys as we follow several nameless questers on their paths of enlightenment.

Referred to only as “he” and “she” or “him” and “her,” these individuals operate on the level of the warrior seeking sartori, bushido, or the knighthood. The tales of the Grail Quest often come to mind. Recurring themes include: archangels, the central pillar, synergy, the Elements and Cardinal Directions, tarot, matter/spirit, the hierophant, royalty, and meditation.

I was somewhat surprised to find the following disclaimer on the copyright page: “PublishAmerica has allowed this work to remain exactly as the author
intended, verbatim, without editorial input” While this is somewhat understandable given the spiritual nature of the poems—the author no doubt feeling as though the slightest change would alter the (depth of) meaning—it was a bit frustrating to find several obvious typos (such as a double comma and a poem entitled “Attainting” that should have been “Attaining”). Having an editor read the manuscript for mechanical errors such as these would have been a benefit.

I also found it odd that there was no author biography. I would have liked to know where her no doubt broad-based and numerous influences and inspirations came from.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Review of Not Even Dogs: hay(na)ku poems by Ernesto Priego

(Meritage Press, 2006, www.meritagepress.com)

by Joey Madia

In the past six months I have reviewed several works by Eileen Tabios and authors associated with Meritage Press that employ the Tabios-invented poetic technique of hay(na)ku. Simply put, the form is tercets consisting of one-, two-, and three-word lines. One can also reverse the order.

I say “simply put” because authors are taking this form and working with it in myriad ways to make it their own. Ernest Priego’s Not Even Dogs was, at the time of its printing, the first single-author book of hay(na)ku (or, in Spanish, jáinakú).

The Foreword by Mark Young (co-editor of the first hay(na)ku anthology) and the Afterword by Eileen Tabios elucidate the history and methodology behind the hay(na)ku form, so I will refrain from saying any more about it here.

Not Even Dogs is divided into three subject-matter sections: Mornings, Territories, and Cities. It is neatly laid out, with design and typesetting by Michelle M. Bautista and compelling cover art by Rodrigo Priego. I also found it interesting that the poems in the first two sections are not titled, but are instead delineated by the first several words of the poem set off in brackets and bold-faced, like an index of first lines. At times these pseudo-titles function as mini-meditations of their own.

The poems of Mornings and Territories operate like prayers and self-assessments (calling to mind the poetry of McKuen and Kerouac), referencing both directly and indirectly, Buddhism, haiku, koans, quantum physics, Tao, and the like, with lines such as:

A
poem is
more than this

A
world in
a sand grain

&
heaven in
a wild flower (p. 16)

Grass moving slowly
the sculpture
watches (p. 45)

I have grown accustomed to the artist reflecting on one’s art through the art itself as part and parcel of the Meritage Press philosophy, and Priego does it as well as anyone I’ve read thus far. He also works with similar metaphorical themes as, for instance, Jean Vengua in Prau (which was published a year after Not Even Dogs), when he employs nautical imagery:

A writer is
a sailor,
reading

Stars
considering wreckages, […] (p. 22)

The final section, Cities, comprises 10 poems, counted down from Tenth City to First City. The cities are never named, but the poems provide clues as to which they are. This added aspect functions to make the reader a more active participant in the process, another recurring theme in the Meritage Press philosophy that I have come to expect and enjoy.

It should be noted that Not Even Dogs is Ernesto Priego’s debut poetry collection. I look forward to more from not only Mr. Priego, but from Meritage Press and Eileen Tabios as well.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

“Swimming in the Cathedral”: A Review of Vernon Frazer’s Improvisations

(Beneath the Underground, 2005, $45.00)

Improvisations is a scary big book. At 700 pages it is far afield from your typically slim volume of poetry. Frazer uses the length and breadth of this master-work to cover an immense amount of typographical and etymological ground, and he has the freedom to repeat a variety of themes for emphasis and effect. At times the passages are so slightly, subtly revised as to be almost unnoticed. But the structure here is akin to Pollock’s drip paintings or the works of East Coast wordsmith Marc Sonnenfeld—Frazer “denies the accident” and one gets the sense that moving one word, one symbol, one line would collapse the entire structure.

It took me nine and a half months to read Improvisations, taking it in as I did in manageable, well-considered doses, like the potent intoxicant that it is. Not since I read Bob Dylan’s Tarantula many years ago have I felt so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words.

I hold the distinction of being the first person to buy it. For a little over three years it sat among my to-be-reads. Staring. Taunting. Daring.

“Don’t be a wuss,” it whispered. “Come swimming in the Cathedral.”

Cathedral, indeed. Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Improvisations is a Gothic-like structure that makes one feel small among its arches of art and rose-window words. If Chartres were made of letters, webdings, and fonts it would look like this.

Improvisations is divided into 160 Roman-numeraled pieces that bring to mind Pound’s Cantos (although one piece is often continued [in thought if not in form] in the one that follows). Everything is Epic here, without being Elitist.

At times the text has a great deal of space, cascading along the pages in a great urgency of couplets and tercets and at other times there are solid blocks of text that cover the pages with half a thousand words. Initially quite daunting, the block text can be broken down into dozens of manageable phrases and ideas.

Along the way he employs glossolalia (speaking in tongues); pictograms; simple homonym word plays (“syntax/sin tax”); words and phrases that do what they say (tilting, dislocate, spread, vertical, slant, verbal sculpture, swelling, splatter) or do not (such as the word “neon” set in grayscale); and references a wide range of literary and other figures, both real and fictional, including: William S. Burroughs, Wilhelm Reich, Van Gogh, Elvis, Paracelsus, bin Laden, Oedipus, Proserpine, carol ghosts, pinball wizards, Dionysius, and Apollo.

Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is deconstructed and strewn throughout, at times coupled with Carl Jung and Lewis Carroll; the phrase “hoarse platitudes” calls to mind Jim Morrison’s “Horse Latitudes.”

Some of my favorite passages from Improvisations (and there are countless other gems):

“the arpeggiated strangulation of the vortex or Wichita” (p. 10); “the few who dared wring blood from ash with wine-stamp feet” (p. 12); “greasepaint smelling the crowd’s roar/intent on one clap handing its applause” (p. 46); “oral skill bought off the lips/of politicians” (p. 77); “Assuage the sins of commas where colonoscopy fears to tread” (p. 162); “the font shall proclaim independence from its linear enslavement” (p. 227); “A loose invective beats a leaf motif any day” (p. 615)

Piece VIII demonstrates the music of words. On p. 124 there is a two-column block of text where the left hand is inverted verbatim in the right hand column, necessitating that the reader read from the bottom up, right to left, creating a quantum physical outlay where matter reverses and loops back on itself. On pp. 158 and 160 one can read the three-column text either across or down each column. This is an impressively constructed work, the artistry of which cannot be taught. It is a vision.

The key to the cathedral for me was this recurring phrase:

FORM ASSERTS SELF } { SELF ASSERTS FORM

[elaborated later as: “if you play (or write) long enough a form will assert itself”]

As we walk down the long aisles of the first 300 pages, drawing ever closer to the altar and the hidden chambers it hides, Frazer provides the direction, the recipe, the cipher along his own whimsical ley lines. And although we have to work for it, it seems he is playing Moriarty to our Holmes; it’s clear that he wants us to know.

What use would it be if we did not?

By p. 340 or so we are well inside, and the typography erupts with a full flowering of everything that has come before, and the visual begins to trump the lingual.

On p. 355 is a visually arresting piece that introduces the term “synesthesia,” which is, according to various Internet sources, a neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experience in a second pathway. Similarly arresting pieces appear on pp. 450–451.

On p. 561, Frazer provides a layout that forces the reader to rotate the page numerous times to read and see everything he’s placed there. After all, anyone can listen to the sermon—the listener must also participate actively in the prayer. And lest we get too caught up in the words and forget our surroundings, the degree of textual overlap on p. 650 is a clear reminder that we mustn’t swim solely in the words.

The final page of the final piece ends with a large grayscale IS, over which are two eyes, an “I” and a small “as,” interpreted by this reader as “as I is/is as I” paralleling the Sanskrit Tat tuam asi—“Thou art that.”

Improvisations ends with a Prelude, where the author outlines his influences and explains his intentions. Think of it as the Bible you buy on the way out of the Cathedral—it is useful to the extent that it operates as a possible interpretation of all that has been already been experienced directly in the heart and soul. It is not to be taken as Gospel.

In a book of pure genius, it is this placement of the Prelude that ensures the journey’s worth all that it asks of us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review of Highest Hurdle Press’s Letterhead Vol. 2

Review of Highest Hurdle Press’s Letterhead Vol. 2

(Edited by Bradley Lastname, Christopher Robin, Brian McMahon, Robert Pomerhn, and Eric Johnt, Highest Hurdle Press, 2008)

{Disclaimer: Two of my poems appear in this collection. They are not mentioned in this review.}

In 2008 I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing Letterhead Volume #1. At the time I thought it quite the impressive undertaking, bringing together so many different types of poets from so many areas of the United States. Readers of that review (and that volume) will be pleased to know that Vol. 2 builds upon both the scope and quality of its predecessor, retaining all of its best qualities while striking new ground in content and form and offering what co-editor Bradley Lastname recently explained to me is a “…darker selection of work, because the times we live in are darker.”

Amen. Embroiled as we are in a time of ongoing wars and global economic and environmental crises (the key subjects explored), the role of the poet in our society, in our world, is perhaps more important than ever. The fact is, only the global and national community of poets can retake their place in society, by speaking their truth Individually, so that it then resonates with the Collective.

To me, this collection does exactly that. The opening essay, by co-editor Brian McMahon, asks at the end of its first paragraph: “what role is there for poetry?” Given the wide breadth of styles—vispo, talk poetry, visual art, word collages, mail art, wordplays, etc.—it is clear that poetry’s role is vast and multidimensional.

Vol. 2 consists of three sections. The first and last contain a mix of textual and visual poetry from dozens of poets and artists from across the U.S., while the middle section comprises works from the “underground poets of California’s west coast,” compiled by Christopher Robin, editor of the Santa Cruz–based zine Zen Baby.

The collection begins with co-editor contributions—a visually stunning multi-part poem by McMahon, followed by an edgy political piece by Eric Johnt. The poetry and visual art that follow in this first section cover a wide range of topics and approaches, culminating in a ten-page collage by Buffalo poet Robert Pomerhn (parts of which are used for the front and back covers).

Pomerhn’s vispo is ripe with irony, meaning, symbols, and layers, inviting multiple visits. His work gets increasingly more compelling with time.

As mentioned earlier, the middle section of Vol. 2 comprises poets from the California coast. The following is a taste of the dark declarations found within:

• From the introduction by Christopher Robin: “…keeping poetry socially relevant while never finding it necessary to be overtly political…” “determined to make our voices heard (in a society that has relegated poetry to the lowest form of art)”
• From Brian Morrisey: “we were children/who never minded/the taste/of our own blood.”
• From William Taylor Jr.: “My friend is a poet//which is to say//he is egocentric/half insane/and has no money”
• From Bert Glick: “Press 5/for incremental suicide/due to compulsive, self destructive behavior”
• From Nicole Henares: “The small mound of wet teeth/next to my pillow in a morning’s nightmare”
• From Eugenia Hepworth Petty: “Gather the hair from your labia/and make a nest for small rodents”
• From Nancy Gauquier: “…trapped in the stiff/boney cage of his terror,//like Hansel in the witch’s house”

The final section begins with eight pieces by Eric Johnt, encapsulating many of the styles of visual and textual poetry that comprise the book. Johnt’s range of expression in these media is impressive. Johnt, Marc Sonnenfeld, Lastname, and Pomerhn anchor the works of this last section, which charges forth with increasing edginess and energy, compelling the reader to complete this journey and, in Brechtian fashion, pick up and carry on.

Of special note are the final two pieces in Vol. 2—talk poetry by Eric Gelsinger (inspired by David Antin) and a summation of Letterhead as an idea and a movement by Robert Pomerhn, straightforwardly titled “LETTERHEAD BETTER BE READ.”

Again I say, Amen.

Copies of Letterhead, Vol. 2 can be purchased by e-mailing Bradley Lastname at bradleylastname@hotmail.com or Robert Pomerhn at pomerhn.robert@gmail.com

“Elizabeth’s Pain”: A Review of Ancient Rage, by Mary Lee Wile

(Published for the Paul Brunton Philosophic Society by Larson Publications, 1995, www.larsonpublications.com)


In the promotional material for this poetic and compelling book, Mary Lee Wile’s biography says that she “wrote this book as a way to fathom her own feelings of grief and rage at the loss of children.” The book’s dedication is to “The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” whose children, according to Wikipedia “‘disappeared’ during the [Argentinian] Dirty War, the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.”

It has been said that outliving one’s child is life’s most profound injustice, and the depth of emotion and meaning in the 144 pages of Ancient Rage are a testament to the deep river of sorrow that the parent of a dead child has to plumb the depths of.

Creating a successful narrative about New Testament matters is no easy task, as evidenced by the poor outcome of Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt, and Wile overcomes potential obstacles by letting the story tell itself virtually unencumbered. She carefully chooses her Emphases and Perspectives, which I will discuss briefly as the substance of this review.

Wile’s prose is woven together like a fine linen with historical facts, religious practice, and Biblical references. Her knowledge of Jewish practice and ritual is considerable, and makes for an educational as well as moving read.

The beheading of John the Baptist on orders of Herod by request of the infamous seductress Salome (who was operating on orders from her mother…) is a Biblical tale almost as well known as the crucifixion of Jesus, which also figures prominently here. One doesn’t have to be especially religious to embrace the themes that resonate through this book. A mother’s love, a child’s resistance and rebellion to his parents’ path and wishes, and the effects of the larger political world on the family unit are the main themes, and they are indeed Universal.

Wile does an excellent job of painting a rich and detailed picture of the landscape, practices, foods, fabrics, and daily lives of the people living in Elizabeth’s time. The scenes at the Jordan river, the Passover meals, and the preparation and consumption of the chief food and drink of the time are especially vivid, as are the Temple ceremonies presided over by Elizabeth’s husband, the High Priest Zachariah.

Readers interested in the mysterious group known as the Essenes, of which John was a member (and perhaps Jesus as well) will find a great deal of information in Ancient Rage about their practices and how they were perceived by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others of their time.

Elizabeth was the cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Wile’s exploration of the trajectory of their relationship from when their children are young, to the two men’s rise to “fame,” and the aging women’s dealing with their sons’ subsequent violent, unnatural and very public deaths provides the narrative spine of Ancient Rage and in the end, it all comes down to Faith.

The book opens well after the death of Jesus (Elizabeth is in her 90s and Mary in her 60s), with the provocative line, “‘What’s it like to drink your son’s blood?’” The two women had not seen each other for nine years, due in great part to Elizabeth’s anger at both God and Jesus for not intervening in John’s fate. The historical explorations of the relationship between Jesus and John—Were they rivals? How many of Jesus’ disciples were former followers of John?—are brought into sharp focus by Elizabeth’s feelings in Ancient Rage.

Another related, equally provocative piece of the puzzle that Wile explores is the question of just why Zachariah and Elizabeth’s prayers for a child late in life were answered. Was John merely a messenger for Jesus, to be sacrificed when he was no longer needed? Could God be so unfeeling and cruel? Anyone who has ever had a prayer answered only to see the ultimate outcome turn a seeming blessing into a scalding curse feels Elizabeth’s pain and prays along with her that God, through Wile, will provide an answer, but none comes.

Once more, it all comes down to Faith. As it must.

Ancient Rage, as both poetic meditation and philosophical treatise on God, parenthood, and loss, is a must read. It is as simple as that.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

“At Journey’s End…”: A Review of Timekeeper, by John Atkinson

(2008, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com)

By Joey Madia

Timekeeper is a modern parable, a journey of “re-imagined events” processed through the author’s memory onto the page. Part Kerouac’s On the Road, part Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, and all soul and spirit, John Atkinson shares with us the story of an Everyman hero who searches for the one thing most precious to a man—

His name.

Johnnyboy, who is unable to read, is 14 when the book opens. After another beating at the hands of the abusive father he calls Bugdaddy (who has already popped his eardrum with a slap and beaten him with a fanbelt), he takes to the road, heading physically and metaphorically westward from Virginia, in search of enlightenment.

Being “of the earth” in both his illiteracy and his part–Native American blood, Johnnyboy is full of metaphorical expressions. Speaking about Bugdaddy, he says to God (through Moses): “That man needs to be shot with sheep sh*t and sent to hell for stinking.” It should be noted that as Johnnyboy matures over the course of the chapters, his language becomes more literal, with metaphorical expressions diminishing until the final chapters, when his journey circles back to a place of balance between the best of what he was and the promise of what he yet will be.

On his cross-country trip he meets plenty of trouble and plenty of friends, all of whom spiral out from the central hub of his search like the multicultural spokes of a wheel. Early on, there is Chicken Bone, the African-American who he visits before leaving home; Simon and Minna, the kind Jewish couple who are heartbroken when he takes to the road too soon; and the pivotal character of Chief, a Native American who helps Johnnyboy on his spiritual quest by giving him mescal buttons and a new name (“Timekeeper”) before sending him to seek the Sacred Mountain.

On his way he meets the “great power” in the form of Check, a yellow-eyed and ill-tempered dog who becomes Timekeeper’s traveling companion, protector, and guide. As Timekeeper made his gas and food money odd-jobbin’ along the way, I began to think of George and Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, as Check’s ornery disposition makes things uncomfortable for his friend. Following this connection, the culminating scenes between the two near book’s end take the Of Mice and Men framework and turn it on its ear in provocative ways.

At this point, it’s important to spend some words about the Sacred Mountain in questing literature and how it resonates in Timekeeper. From Carlos Castaneda’s relationship with Don Juan to Black Elk’s Harney Peak and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s groundbreaking film Holy Mountain, the idea of the axis mundi (center of the world) as the connecting point between the higher and lower realms and the quest to get there and make the climb play a central role and Timekeeper honors this traditional in fine fashion. Because Johnnyboy has been ridiculed and/or beaten down by the three pillars of society—his family, his school, and his church—he has no choice but to look outside these societal structures for meaning and his purpose, or “name.”
His journey to the Sacred Mountain culminates with his arrival in Chapter 13. With all of the artistry and insight of Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Wade Davis, and Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Atkinson relates Timekeeper’s mescal-induced journey into the higher realms. This is a chapter you’ll want to read twice, as it represents the axis mundi of not only the narrator’s quest, but the book itself, as afterward Timekeeper takes to the road with Check once again to try and find Chief. Having received his visions, he wants help in making meaning of them, part of which will be receiving a new name.

As Timekeeper gets closer to California, Atkinson introduces his narrator to a new set of characters who subtly reinforce the changes at hand. Honoring the spiritual maxim that we “get what we need and meet who we must,” Timekeeper meets a voracious reader named Pete as well as Jeff and Martha, who represent the much longed-for balance of body and mind—Jeff is a second grade dropout who is an ace mechanic and Martha has a Ph.D.

I have no wish to tip the reader any further to the events that await Timekeeper as he arrives in the West. Each experience, each new person met, and each all-too-necessary death extends and strengthens all that I have thus far highlighted and, at journey’s end, we know that Timekeeper must begin again.

John Atkinson has shared a much-needed and vibrant story with us, through both embracing the spirit as it has been explored in the past and furthering its applicability to our own lives through his own particular lens.

I look forward to reading more.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

“By the (Not So) Beautiful Sea”: A Review of The InkerMen’s Land’s End

(InkerMen Press, 2008)

Land’s End, the follow-up anthology to 2007’s Green and Unpleasant Land, is a fairly dark and sinister collection of tales covering a broad range of themes within the confines of that narrow strip of land betwixt the sea and the larger world.

Consisting of twelve stories and a Preface (“Didn’t we have a Lovely Time?”), Land’s End covers, for example, mythology, seaside entertainments, sea creatures, and plenty of ghosts.

Lucy Ann Wade starts off the stories with her take on the Calypso and Odysseus episode from The Odyssey (“Calypso”), doing so with great success as she explores the always treacherous nexus of naiveté and sexual lust. The “do as I say, not as I do” two-facedness of Calypso’s fellow Naiads made them read like a pack of modern high-school girls and not the far-off subjects of what is often (wrongly) seen as an irrelevant and antiquated tale.

Over the past several years of reviewing InkerMen titles, I have made no secret of my fondness for the tales of James Scott, and his contribution here (“The Face in the Curtains”) resonates with his strong voice and engaging explorations of the notions of time and memory. The story is enhanced by black and white photographs of a model by Hannah Taggart.

Obby Robinson’s “The Church Near Trevance or The Piscean Parliament” takes the Biblical metaphor of the fish and turns it on its ear¬—or rather, fin. Robinson conjures images that are all at once comical, fantastical, and unsettling. I could not help but think of Gregory Peck’s turn as Father Maple in the 1998 version of Moby Dick starring Patrick Stewart and wondering just what the great white whale would say if he were allowed to tell his side.

A noteworthy new “conspirator” among the InkerMen (as they call their contributors) is Oliver Smith, who has two stories, “Magdalene” and “Magdalene Regained,” in this collection. Smith, who is a visual artist as well as a writer, combines his skills to create a strikingly visual style of writing, richly textured and shaded through a dark and subtle palette of alliteration and religious/gothic imagery.

A far cry from the normal noise and madness of post-apocalyptic visions, Peter Griffiths’ “Outer Hope” is a quiet, reflective piece that examines our compulsion to go right back to where we were, no matter the damage it may have caused. Ironic that it takes place by the ever-renewing, never-the-same sea.

Alexander Mack’s “The Ebb” is an off-kilter, out-of-keel first-person tale through the eyes of a man more than slightly mad. There are a plethora of quirky phrases and interesting jumps in thought and logic that set up a series of circumstances where things are never what they seem.

For fans of H. P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, there is D. P. Woveweft’s “Erbach’s Emporium of Automata.” Every seaside town has its tourist attractions, be they dark or jolly, and Erbach’s is a little bit of both. Woveweft’s vivid descriptions of the automata bring to mind simple times and toys, the days before the Wii and MMOs took over our children’s minds and imaginations. It’s pure irony when the narrator says “Children are pure rationality, mechanisms of truth. Then we teach them lies.” Indeed.

Land’s End closes with a tale by Bleak Summit (“Stay Where I Can See You”), the charm of which lies in its utter predictability. A seaside collection of this type would be completely incomplete without it, and Summit rises to the task, reminding us that many of the most sinister things happen before the darkness falls.

Land’s End brings together a highly talented group of InkerMen conspirators. This up and coming publisher has yet to hit their full stride, and I look forward to what is coming next.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

“Cruelty Beneath the Moon”: A Review of Kit Berry’s Moondance of Stonewylde

(Moongazy Publishing, 2006, www.stonewylde.com)

Last year I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Magus of Stonewylde, Book One of the Stonewylde series. The seemingly idyllic pagan community that serves as the stage for this engaging series is populated with heroes and heroines, shamans and witches, Villagers and Hallfolk, all partaking in the eight festivals that mark the cycles of the year in pagan practice.

At the center of Stonewylde is the all-powerful and charming Magus, against whom is set the series’ hero—a teenager named Yul, who shares in a star-crossed love with the very complicated and unique Sylvie, whose arrival and adjustment to Stonewylde were central to Magus.

Moondance of Stonewylde succeeds in the many ways I mentioned in my review of Magus, and builds on that success in several new aspects. Berry goes into great detail about the daily and seasonal workings of the community in the sequel, covering everything from the harvesting of apples and the making of cider to the harvesting of flax and its conversion to linen cloth, weaving the details into the fabric of the characters’ lives with a seamless, impressive style.

Berry introduces a colorful old professor and presents a Prophecy through rival witches to share with the reader bits and pieces of the dark history of Stonewylde. For readers of Magus, you will learn just enough about the powerful central family and their extended family tree to make you rush out to buy the next book in the series, Solstice at Stonewylde.

Although the Stonewylde series is primarily about the life and practices of those in the pagan community, illuminating such aspects as the intricacies of pagan lore and ritual, the Triple Goddess, the Green Man, earth and moon magic, and the meanings behind the festivals, the books have a much broader appeal.

To begin with, they are tightly written. Berry unfolds the larger story with a skill reminiscent of J.K. Rowling and uses literary devices like alliteration and word play to great effect.

The true strength of these books, though, to me, is the depth and complexity of the characters. It has been a long time since a group of characters have evoked such a consistent emotional response. Like I did with the first book, I scrawled expletives in the margins to release some emotion as the antagonists (and some of the protagonists) wreaked their havoc, either intentionally or unintentionally.

And the cruelty in these books really knows no bounds, especially when it comes at the hands (or minds) of parents toward their children, a theme that runs through the book like a sinister stream through a field of fragile flowers.

Like Magus, Moondance ends with a cliffhanger so compelling that I cannot imagine a reader not wanting to pick up the next book as soon as they can. I know I will.

I highly recommend visiting www.stonewylde.com. 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. You can also become a member of the Stonewylde online community (www.stonewylde.net), where you can create a profile, write blogs, and engage with the growing numbers of enthusiastic readers of this powerful series.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review of Ed Baker/Cid Corman "Restoration Letters" and Ed Baker "Restoration Poems"

“Building Words in Time”: A Review of Ed Baker/Cid Corman’s “Restoration Letters (1972–1978)” (tel-let, Charleston, IL, 2003) and Ed Baker’s “Restoration Poems (1972-2007)" (Country Valley Press, 2008, countryvalley@mac.com)

In the age of e-mail, at a time when the Post Office is deep in the red and thinking of scaling back delivery to five days a week, it was a welcome pleasure to receive “Restoration Letters” as a companion to “Restoration Poems” from poet and artist Ed Baker.

Ed’s minimalist, stream-of-consciousness poetry had caught my attention several months before, as did his goddess drawings, and I was eager to read the collection of poems he had written while restoring the John Penn house outside Hanover, PA during the years 1972–1975.

“Restoration Letters” represents five and a half years of correspondence between Baker and the poet, editor, and translator Cid Corman, who was living at the time in Kyoto running a struggling coffee shop with his wife Shizumi, a former television news editor.

Corman loved poetry and believed in the condition of poet as a way of life, and reading the letters, it is clear he had found a kindred spirit in Baker. There is a strong sense of movement and an evolving relationship over the course of their correspondence. The first letter, dated September 22, 1972 is to “Ed Baker” and is hand-signed “Your’s Cid Corman.” By the time of the next letter (July 1973) all formality is gone and the closing is “Love Always, Cid.”

The letters, although each covers several topics, have two main thrusts—Corman’s insightful and at times hardnosed feedback on Baker’s evolving collection of poems during his renovations of the Penn house and Corman’s relating the trials and travails of trying to survive until the coffee shop became profitable and dealing with the challenges of running Origin Press and Origin magazine.

There is a wealth of insight here for both the poet and the small-press publisher. Corman had been in publishing for over 20 years by the time of this correspondence and his understanding of the nuances of the poet’s world (personal and professional, artistic and practical) was vast. He is gracious and giving, trying to connect Baker with other poets and publishers who would enjoy his work/be able to help and even trying to get him a renovation job through his brother.

For the politically minded reader, Corman’s analysis of the 1975–1976 Democratic primaries and presidential race is fascinating reading, calling to mind the razor-sharp combination of wit and analysis in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

The overwhelming percentage of letters are from Corman to Baker, so it is interesting and in many ways fun to piece together what Corman may be referring to in his responses.

As a poet and editor, I have long been interested in these types of collections (such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Ferlinghetti’s correspondence and a collection of Harvey Goldner/Robert Pomerhn letters I recently reviewed as part of the anthology Letterhead, Volume 1) and “Restoration Letters” is as vital and relevant as any I have read.

The staple-bound collection of photo-copied letters has a charming appeal, as there are hand-written notes in the margins as well as hand-corrected and typed-over typos. There is an intimacy here that more polished, typeset collections completely miss.

This sense of intimacy and genuineness in their work and in their lives sets the stage (or, the foundation, if you will) for “Restoration Poems,” and for several interesting reasons.
First, it was Corman’s intention to publish the poems in the ‘70s and it took another thirty-plus years for them to see print. This is noteworthy in and of itself and plays, ironically, into Corman’s advice to Baker in “Restoration Letters”: “No hurry with the book: it won’t improve with haste.”

Second, there is a great deal of talk in the “Letters” using house-building/carpentry as a metaphor for creating poems. While this is not a new concept, the strength and beauty of the metaphors in the “Letters” seem to have had a profound impact on the poetry of “Restoration Poems,” itself an extended metaphor intertwining writing and working with wood, especially since there is a Japanese temple carpenter who recurs in the “Letters” who works in an ancient and spiritual way.

“Restoration Poems” is richly designed. It is a small, thin book with a deep green cover, with linen pages at its start and end. It holds a palpable energy that carries the reader through from start to finish. The sound of hammer on nail, of plane on plank and the smell of the wood and the land dress the words, which are sparse and carefully chosen. (Corman advised Baker in the “Letters” to let the words have their own weight, not to overwrite, to not obstruct with verbs…) When Baker writes “fire/source/waste-wood” we know there is no such thing. Everything is used; nothing is wasted; all is there because it needs to be.

The book reminds me of the collections of Basho (whom Corman translated), Li-Po, and others of the Eastern tradition. The pages are not numbered, nor the poems titled, nor are there many words on the page. When Baker asks “how to put/new materials/into old/ spaces” or talks of “space/transformed” the reader can see the metaphor at work. He even uses a bill for sand and Blue Bond as a poem, and it succeeds quite well.

A third appeal of the book is the connection of work with worth, irrespective of profit. Corman is virtually penniless, and yet relevant and essential to the work he does and Baker never mentions what he is being paid. It is about the (re)creation of the space, and he often refers to his “raw hands” as an emblem of his passion for the work.

I found it interesting that I read the book (the first time) in 36 minutes—one minute for each year Baker took to write and revise it, paralleling to some degree the lines “throw-/down/ 250/year s/chimney/ in/one day.”

If you have ever had the pleasure of restoring a centuries-old house, you will share in Baker’s passion, manifested and held in these poems. If not, the fine writing and degree of craftsmanship and care make this essential reading for all true lovers and practitioners of the poet’s art.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Review of Guilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way, by Lawrence H. Staples, Ph.D. (2008, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com)

It’s always easy to like a book with which you instantly agree. We embrace the familiar, the similar, the types of things made of the same prima materia with which we’ve built our beliefs. But so much the better when an idea, a thesis, a text that we at first reject wins us over through a mix of solid research, real-life examples, and strong writing. Such is the case with my experience of Guilt with a Twist.

In the Overview, Dr. Staples states: “We have to sin and incur guilt, if we are to grow and reach our full potential” (xv). Being a “lapsed” Catholic who had often experienced guilt as a weapon and thought the concept of “Original Sin” or having to confess your sins to an intermediary was nothing but power-clenching propaganda on the part of the Church, I found myself inching toward dismissing the book entirely, a feeling that persisted as I continued through the first section.

The idea here is that there is “Good Guilt,” as demonstrated by such historical luminaries as Socrates, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, and Galileo (and the mythical Prometheus). In other words, we do things that break the rules of the times or are considered “sins” to perpetrate a greater good, to achieve a higher purpose.

After reading about Parks, I made some notes in the margin, as follows:

“She did not sin, nor was she wracked with guilt. Society was wrong.”

“Sin is too subjective to standardize guilt and shame as he’s done so far.”

Oddly enough, on the day I started Guilt with a Twist I read an interview with artist/art dealer Tony Shafrazi who, to protest the Vietnam War, spray-painted “Kill Lies All” across Picasso’s Guernica mural (itself a protest piece). He had no guilt about it because his objectives were clear, just like Rosa’s must have been.

The moralizing of guilt is, of course, a thorny problem, as there is a world of possibility in making determinations about what is “good,” what is a “sin,” and just what might be a “greater good” or “higher purpose.” After all, the notion of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, explored in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra and in the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, or the phrase “the end justifies the means” open a can of clawed and fanged wyrms ready to rip to shreds the fabric of society.

Lucky for us, Dr. Staples has taken the time to formulate his thesis and elaborate thoroughly upon it in Guilt with a Twist. He draws on many sources and techniques, first and foremost the work of Carl Jung. (Staples is a Jungian analyst who trained in Switzerland after making a mid-life career-switch at the age of 50).

He says: “the urge to sin may be identical with the urge to individuate, a Jungian term for the psychological process by which we become the unique person we are meant to be” (xix). This brought to mind the Nietzschean notion of slaying the dragon of “Thou Shalt.” As Jung said, “the shadow, where we hide our sins in secret, is 90% pure gold” (34), which that nasty dragon hordes.

Mapping out the terrain of guilt, Dr. Staples lists three types of authorities: parental, secular, and divine, all of which define “sin” in subtly different but mostly overlapping ways. The expectations put upon us by this triumvirate—from which we must stray in pursuit of our true selves—spark our guilt, leading us to suppress and deny our shadow selves and live what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.”

In chapter 4, Dr. Staples outlines several sources of guilt: sex, abandonment, divorce, negative feelings for parents, anger, negativity, gender roles, selfishness, different sexual orientation, falling short of ideals, truth and lies, renunciation of religious beliefs, alcohol, and feelings.

Of the fourteen sections in chapter 4, I have had direct experience of twelve.

This certainly got my attention.

Anticipating the exploration of opposites in chapter 5, Staples writes: “the sacred and the profane are but two sides of a single underlying reality” (33). Then, in chapter 5 came the key sentence that furthered the connection with my own experiences: “[G]uilt’s purpose is not the maintenance of morals; it is the maintenance of the opposites and psychic wholeness” (98).

This is an idea I certainly understand, being a person who juggles many roles (writer, director, editor, father, husband, actor, musician, etc.) and has often felt abundant guilt that the “jack of all trades, master of none” phenomenon was coupling with not giving loved ones enough time and attention and spawning the child Mediocrity.

The pull of opposites is also something I know well, having struggled most of my life with the dynamic of pleasing others versus pleasing myself, and of course, the more I thought about it, the more the role of guilt became clear.

The often contradictory words of my grandmother, a quintessential Italian-American matriarch who recently passed away at 91, also echo in my head. She would say, alternately: “You work too hard! You need to take care of yourself and rest!” and “You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines!”

Chapter 5 discusses in vibrant detail the play of opposites, how they attract and move apart and how they produce, through the mechanism of guilt, homeostasis and creative output.

For those readers interested in the nexus between quantum physics and spirituality, Dr. Staples speaks about the movement of opposites in terms of the cosmic dance as I’ve seen it described by authors like Michael Talbot and Fritjof Capra.

As Dr. Staples says, “We keep moving from pole to pole until the ego becomes strong enough to bear the tension of co-existing opposites” (109). Recalling my own 20-plus- year journey on this path and the experiences of Carl Jung as related in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, it is clear that the guilt must be borne if the ego is to achieve its required strength, and the process is never easy but ever required.

Chapter 6, entitled “The Role of Guilt in Creativity and Psychological Development,” at 76 pages, is the longest and most appealing chapter in the book to me, given the correlations between the material in chapter 5 and my own life. Dr. Staples extends the notion of dynamic opposites to the masculine/feminine coupling necessary in any creative endeavor. The case studies and historical examples from which Dr. Staples draws are a mini-course in the psychological aspects of creativity and this chapter could be read on its own by any artist seeking to better understand the process.

Approaching the end of chapter 6 and reading a section entitled “Sin, Guilt, and Self-Development,” I came upon a timely article on AOL about the Vatican’s concern that Catholics are going to confession less and less. There was a poll attached to the article in which 79% of the population still believes in the concept of sin. It’s a given that these online polls are far from scientific, but the number is high enough to suggest that a considerable portion of people believe that sin exists, therefore guilt must as well.

Part II of the book, which comprises a single chapter and the Conclusions, is called “Assuaging Guilt,” covering both spiritual and psychological approaches (what I have found in my own experience to be a highly useful and well-rounded dual approach to just about any endeavor). Chapter 7 ends with the analysis of five dreams with orientations around guilt. Dr. Staples offers some practical insights in working with dreams in creative and healing ways.

Life is complicated—in these troubled financial and political times more than ever—and it seems most people are struggling with the guilt of limited time, opportunity, and resources. The fields of the twenty-first century are seeded with myriad guilt, choking the good gardens of our progress as individuals and as a race. Guilt with a Twist is a kind of “gardener’s guide” to pulling the weeds of “bad guilt” and bringing forth a healthier harvest.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review of The Blind Chatelaine’s Keys: Her Biography through Your Poetics, Begun by Eileen R. Tabios, Completed by Others, BlazeVOX, 2008

Chatelaine (chain)—A set of short chains on a belt worn by women and men for carrying keys, thimble and/or sewing kit, etc. (from Wikipedia)

“Kapwa”—a Filipino cultural concept of interconnectedness whereby other people are not “others” but part of what one is. (from the opening page; emphasis in original)

How does one get to truly know the artist? Especially when the one doing the searching is the artist her- or himself?

Dostoyevsky and Freud put forth the notion that it is impossible for an autobiography to reveal the Truth because of our penchant for self-delusion and both positive and negative exaggeration. Aldous Huxley seemed to agree, saying: “there is never a one-to-one correspondence between an author’s work and his character.”

If poetry, like all writing, is a form of autobiography, then the path to the Truth is lined with thorns and nails and broken glass, at the end of which are myriad locks.

The Blind Chatelaine’s Keys is a collection of reviews of many of Eileen Tabios’ books (going back to 1996), each book and each review constituting a “key” to the author’s—and reviewer’s—poetical and personal biography.

This unique deconstruction of the poet through the eyes of the critic features an impressive collection of important reviewers and poets, including Ric Carfagna, Clayton Couch, Laurel Johnson, Jesse Glass, Ron Silliman, Jean Vengua, and Annabelle Udo.

Reading this book got me thinking about the condition of being both a reviewer and writer—being on both sides of the line, as it were (as I have been as a director and actor, a teacher and student, an editor and submitter, etc.) and the responsibilities and expectations that come with each of these roles. Tabios has certainly hit on something important with the title of this collection—what better, surer way to learn of the artist than by knowing both the artist’s works and the way they are received/processed/interpreted by their audience (and let’s face it, a poet’s primary audience is other poets…Perhaps that is why the subtitle reads “Your Poetics”; my emphasis).

After the review section comes a moving and innovative piece entitled “Looking for M. A Haybun Journal.” On page 159 the reader will find a definition for “haybun,” a new form of writing created by Tabios based on a haiku/prose combination created by Basho and incorporating the hay(na)ku form created by Tabios and adopted by many others.

“Looking for M.” uses clinical definitions, poetry, and letters to a “Government Agency in Charge of Children” as it chronicles in moving words a “failed” adoption attempt on the part of Tabios and her husband after they experienced first hand the condition of “reactive attachment disorder,” prevalent in orphans, who, because of traumatic experiences throughout their young lives, cannot trust or bond with adults.

“Looking for M.” is as moving as it is innovative, and is well worth the purchase price of this volume in and of itself.

The final section of this collection is a “Post Script” called Roasting the Editor by a reviewer named John Bloomberg-Rissman that is a tongue in cheek deconstruction of Tabios’ Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole that begins by inserting Tabios’ name throughout a Wikipedia biography of Elvis Presley.

This last review succeeds in putting what we do as reviewers (and as reviewed) in proper perspective.

If it is true, as Oscar Wilde said, that the future of fiction is to “reveal the innermost workings of [wo]man’s soul” then the coupling of reviewer and reviewed is an essential mechanism for opening the locks.

I applaud both BlazeVOX and Eileen Tabios for putting together such an interesting and thought-provoking collection. It is well worth a read, whether ye be poet or no.

You can order the book at blazevox.org

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Review of Prau by Jean Vengua (Meritage Press, 2007, www.meritagepress.com/)

Winner of the The Filamore Tabios, Sr. Memorial Poetry prize, for which Filipino poets from around the world are eligible, Jean Vengua’s Prau is a fascinating journey in the often stormy seas of nontraditional poetry. It takes as its overarching theme images of boats and boating, bracketing its interior selection of poems with a beginning quote by Herman Melville and an ending quote from The Dhammapada. The quotes served, for me, a navigational purpose, functioning as the start and end points on a map or as the buoys that mark a channel or inlet, calling to mind the mnemonic device of “Red, Right, Return” that I learned as a teenager living near the ocean and learning to sail.

Such anchors, if you will, are an essential part of any nontraditional writing, as they clue the reader to the fact that the author is not working randomly, or haphazardly, just putting words, phrases, and constructs on the page, but that the collection holds in important, vital ways.

In reading Prau, I often thought of poets such as Mark Sonnenfeld, Vernon Frazer, and Ric Carfagna. Their works—whether they be fractal, language poetry, vispo, or other experimental/nontraditional forms—have thematic, stylistic, and structural coherence. There is order in the presentation, the language, and the thought, no matter how random and stream of consciousness it all may seem at first glance.

As Sonnenfeld often says, in defense of his work (and it’s unfortunate that he even has to), “If you change or move a single word, the whole structure falls apart.”

I thought of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings as well, and how he famously said, "I don't use the accident. I deny the accident."

Poetry such as that offered in Prau highlights, for me, the strengths of Stream of Consciousness writing. Far from just “verbal vomit,” as some critics and editors suggest, I believe that S of C writing works with the same binding principles as our Dreams—within the turbulent sea, the crucial images and symbols have a buoyancy that makes them easily discernible.

To keep with the boating theme of Prau, the poems offered work like a seining net—though they have gaps and holes, there is a well-woven structure that allows much to flow.

Prau begs multiple reads—it is my sense that depending on one’s mood, the time of day, the season of the year, what is buoyant and what flows through the poetic net will morph and change. This in and of itself makes this volume notable and easy to recommend.

I’d like to leave the reader with a selection of lines from Prau that further articulate what I’ve chosen to focus upon in this short review:
“…bad content can penetrate deeply into the wandering habits of the writer, could upset the sacredness of the journey” (“Migration Busting,” p. 20)

“if only/to communicate/to you my inability/to communicate/without interruptions/in sense, in flow … how I stutter/between facades” (“Abilidad,” p. 67)

“in/the sentence/there is breathing … beauty/depends upon/a broken sentence” (“Loophole,” p. 71)

The reader will notice that “Loophole” consists of tercets of one, two, and three words, a form called “hay(na)ku” developed by Eileen Tabios and the focus of The First Hay(na)ku Anthology, which Jean Vengua co-edited. It is an efficient, intriguing form with its roots in the tercet of the haiku.

“I barely know what I’m writing; it’s true. … Some letters, something is missing, and we know it.” (“The Problems (2),” p. 82)

Vengua’s style and technique are further capsulated in the poem “The Conditions” (p. 85).

Friday, January 2, 2009

“Poetic Meditation”: A Review of Eileen Tabios’ Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (Marsh Hawk Press, www.marshhawkpress.org, 2002)

Eileen Tabios is proof that one need not be locked into either a right- or left-brained set of experiences over the course of one’s life.

With an MBA from NYU and an undergraduate degree in political science, she had a successful career in finance before shifting her attention to poetry. Her list of publications and awards is impressive (including the Philippines’ Manila Critics Circle National Book Award for Poetry). She is an editor as well as a writer, and since 2001 has been integrating mixed-media and performance aspects into her work. She is also the founder of Meritage Press.

Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole is a subtle cinematography of words. It is a meditative and gentle read, drawing on the deeply experiential and ultra-personal, framed by a referential triumvirate—poetry, painting, and place.

This book of what might be termed “prose poems” is composed of three sections: My Greece, Returning the Borrowed Tongue, and Triptych for Anne Truitt.

The collection opens with four quotes as it journeys from Book Opening, to section opening, to the first poem. Throughout its 124 pages the book has quotes by an impressive array of writers, painters, philosophers, and other artists. Eileen is obviously well read and well traveled, these “passive” and “active” aspects of her life adding a richness to her poetry that only comes from a life fully lived.

Much of the writing considers painting as a metaphor (and literal act) for vision, organization, and inspiration. Color is prevalent (and at times wonderfully explicit, as in the alphabetical list in “Muse Poem”), as well as texture, setting, technique, and mood.

She quotes several unnamed artists and poets within the works, such as this line from “Abandoning Misery” (p. 97): “I wanted passion—I got it, and its punishment, too. … I got all the violence that accompanies desire.”

Her own observations are just as striking: “It is so difficult to find innocence in accomplished men. There is always something to be paid” (“Jade,” p. 23) or “I am addicted to what I do not know” (“Illusions through the Grid,” p. 113).

Many of the poems have no end punctuation, leaving the thought, the situation, the moment unfinished, as they so often are.

“The Color of a Scratch in Metal” and “The Fairy Child’s Prayer” are so beautiful, one could read them in meditation over and over, losing all sense of time and place and gaining new perspectives as doors are thrown wide. “Approximations” is another piece that is nearly perfect in its tone and images, while “Respect” reads like found letters, the ones blown upon the beach from some post-summer tourist-town street, or the ones that protrude invitingly from cans of garbage struck by streetlight that you pass after closing the bar.

There are character studies such as “The Investment Banker” and “The Receptionist” that turn the light on the seemingly mundane to look at the unique beyond the filmic caricature.

“My Saison between Baudelaire and Morrison” is a wonderful concoction of the literary flavors of the two writers of the title, with the sprinkled spice of Rimbaud and Blake.

The book has a last section entitled “Triptych for Anne Truitt.” A triptych (according to Wikipedia) is “a work of art (usually a panel painting) which is divided into three sections, or three carved panels which are hinged together and folded.” It is often altar art and has its roots in early Christian religious painting. Anne Truitt was a well-known and celebrated artist who died in 2004, two years after the book was published.

Within the first triptych is perhaps a key to the larger themes of the book: “Once, I drove through a forest in New Hampshire and saw a painting by Cezanne as I made a left turn. But, so quickly did I leave it behind…” (p. 111).

In an age of electronic and “disposable art,” where surfing the ‘Net is akin to flipping endlessly through cable TV channels in search of reconnection in an atmosphere of isolation (calling to mind Robert Pirsig’s line from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that looking at nature through the car window is just more TV…), the meditative works in Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole defy the reader to simply skim and move on. The hooks are finely barbed and grab you in the deepest places (the Triptych alone contains too many to list).

The book closes with a very helpful “Selected Notes to Poems” section and a substantial list of acknowledgments. The length and breadth of the acknowledgments comes as no surprise given what I have to come to know of Eileen Tabios during our handful of e-mails: There are few writers out there as genuinely excited about the work and as generous as Eileen—her spirit radiates throughout her poetry and no doubt through her life. A visit to her blog (http://angelicpoker.blogspot.com/) is highly recommended.

The cover photo of this book is a striking image of a rose fallen onto a thorn called “Rose and Thorn” by Cal Strobel.

I look forward to reviewing several more titles from Eileen in the coming months, as well as a selection of books from Meritage Press.