Tuesday, November 1, 2016

“Saving the Best for Last”: A Review of The Journal of Vincent du Maurier III, by K. P. Ambroziak

(Published by the author, 2016). ISBN: 9781535511193
by Joey Madia
Why are we so satisfied with trilogies? I think of books like the Lord of the Rings cycle, the Blake Crouch Pines series, and the Oedipus cycle of Sophocles, and film series like The Matrix and the original Star Wars and I can think of little more satisfying than a triadic installment of a well-told tale.  In my book on storytelling I talk about trilogies and triads; about 3-Act structure and the Rule of 3s; and about Aristotle being the first to point out to us not only that good stories have a beginning, middle, and end, but what each of them should accomplish, a launching point I have built on for years in my “Three 3s of Good Storytelling” worksheets and workshops.
There is no doubt that there is something fundamental in our DNA as storytellers and story absorbers that makes a trilogy one of the perfect delivery mechanisms for a tale worth sharing—sharing being a two-way feedback loop of writer–reader on a journey that takes the writer’s IOUs and spreads them out over not just a chapter or book, but over a series of them.
K. P. Ambroziak has accomplished a great deal in the Vincent du Maurier trilogy, as I’ve examined in my reviews of the first two books. All that succeeded in the prior two books is strengthened here, with much added in the way of mystery and elegance in how the meta-mystery origin stories unfold.
Before I get into the structure and tone of the book, I’d like to make a more general comment on where vampire novels such as this and monster-based horror stories in general tend to be going in the twenty-first century. By the late 1800s, when the world was getting acquainted with such characters as Dracula, Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Moreau, the operative metaphors were the suppression of sex, the fear of Western European blood being polluted by Eastern Europeans, and Eugenics. Underlying it all was the struggle to come to terms with rapidly advancing fields in the sciences. In the twenty-first century, as those scientific fields have grown into the many-headed hydra of genes and their mapping, isolation, and manipulation, the vampire/monster genre’s metaphors have become ever-more concrete: The Strain, Tru Blood, and Prince Lestat all take aim at the blood–gene bulls-eye and their vampires are fascinated with the potential for power and control it promises (making them more like politicians and the military than ever before). Even men-as-monsters use genetics, as evidenced in Dan Brown’s Inferno. In this new world, as in the old one, scientist is synonymous with either God or God-maker.
Ambroziak embraces this evolving trope, making it the driving force of the final book of the trilogy. She takes complicated science and makes it understandable and plausible, while twisting and turning the plot like the double helix. On a parallel track, with all the complications of a strand of DNA, the plot moves back and forth in time, in and out of reality, folding over and back upon itself numerous times. Not wanting to give anything away, I will talk only broadly about the narrative “how” of it all.
Intertwining with what I’ve just described (as if that weren’t enough of a feast) is a strong rooting in mythology (once again making me think of Dan Brown. Honestly though, Ambroziak is an equal storyteller and superior writer).
As many trilogies do, this one goes from small in scope—centering on Du Maurier and the pregnant woman he protects in book I—to quite large, spanning countries and timelines as back stories are illuminated and mysteries are solved. Du Maurier is right in line with the twenty-first-century male anti-hero—the deeply flawed man who tries to keep his family together while making mistake after mistake. And what constitutes “family” in this third book is expansive and complex, which is an apt parallel with present times, where family is ever-more nontraditional and broadly defined.
Vampirism as addiction is further developed in this final book of the trilogy, interlocking thematically with humans and hybrids who willingly give their blood to the most dominant of the vampires. If we consider that vampirism in the sense of psychic vampirism is a very real thing in most people’s lives, this device gives us plenty to think about in our own familial and social networks.
Coming full circle, the brilliance in this trilogy is that the story unfolds through numerous perspectives, akin to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, which celebrate 40 years with its twelfth book arriving in November of this year. Du Maurier, in the third book of this trilogy, chooses a young Norse monk-like figure to set down his tale, reminding me of the opening of Rice’s Blood and Gold.

Without giving away the end, I hold out hope that one or more of the facets of the diamond that is the newly defined family of this trilogy goes on to continue the tale.

Monday, October 17, 2016

“Bangkok Shadow and Light”: A Review of John Gartland (poetry) and Mark Desmond Hughes (photography) Blanc et Noir: Masters of Noir 2

“Bangkok Shadow and Light”: A Review of John Gartland (poetry) and Mark Desmond Hughes (photography) Blanc et Noir: Masters of Noir 2 (Lizardville Productions, 2016)

A few months ago I had the pleasure of reviewing John Gartland’s Resurrection Room: Bangkok dark rhetoric, a complex, riveting piece that seamlessly blended sardonic autobiography and social commentary with fantastical leaps through time and subject-space.
Blanc et Noir operates as a companion piece and, although it showcases Gartland’s poetry (as did sections of Resurrection Room), it comes at its subject matter—Bangkok and environs and the myriad personalities who populate this space—from a series of different angles. It is no less (and at times more so) sharp and biting than its predecessor. Add in the stunning and at times disturbing photography of Mark Desmond Hughes and the written/visual cocktail is both potent and lasting.
Gartland knows Story, and talks of it often in his poetry and prose. The opening line of the collection is “That fantasy of a well-rounded life in three acts,” calling to mind Joseph Campbell’s oft-stated observation that, although our lives seem random, looking back at the end, they seem as well-crafted as the best of novels. As expected, Gartland is throwing down the gauntlet against Securities, Platitudes, and Falsities, because he—and his characters—have seen behind, around, and thru them.

A note on the relationship between Gartland’s poems as they are laid out and Hughes’ photography: there is not always a clear one, which I prefer. One has to dig deeply into the composition and qualities of the photographs as well as the poems in order to mine connective meaning. Besides, they are sharing landscape—Bangkok—so anything beyond is not needed. They operate in counterpoint at times, which is also value-added in terms of the overall experience.

Hughes intertwines the human landscape with his city and country landscapes, intermixing several provocative photographs of females with those of Gartland and his stunning place-pictures.

Gartland begins the journey through the eyes of the “Eye”—a film-noirish detective who parcels out the performances he witnesses in the local bar at the Mambo Hotel. The character is grizzled, jaded, and brutal in his truth-giving: “listening to others’ production-line prose, self-published wunderkinds who believe their own hype,
burned-out actors on valium bogarting the mike…” A man out of time, who has “conversations with shadows and ghosts” (and what are photographs if not compositions of the same?).

Following the philosophical–psychological survey poem “Thinkers and Drinkers (you’reonlyjungonce)” there is a photograph of a woman shooting pool. She is skeletal—her hair a wiry mass of energy, but rendering her faceless. Her thin legs swim in her knee-high high-heeled boots. Her ribs are showing, and (perhaps) a nipple. This photograph can be juxtaposed with an earlier one of a woman in a short, tight dress, her body full and athletic, crossing one spiked-pump leg across the other, offering a glimpse of her black panties. Her face, although with eyes closed and looking down and to the side, is visible, and her hair, long and straight, is pushed off to the side. It would take an essay in itself to fully explore these two photographs (especially given that I found out in the final stages of the review that they are Bangkok “ladyboys”: transvestites), but they offer a glimpse into the counter and complimentary forces at work in this collaborative collection and Gartland’s larger body of work. In the next poem, “Civilisation 101,” the professor in the poet instructs us to “Discuss” and then “Reflect.” He gives us ample material with which to do so.
A little less than a quarter of the way is the first of Hughes’s landscape photos. My notes upon contemplating it were as follows: “foreign landscapes with monster-spectres in the sky, a figure on the ground parting the waves of a stand-in Red Sea—or are they fields of wheat?” Throughout the remainder of the collection there are similar “haunted” land- and cityscapes, full of phantom figures in much the same way the city—and the poems—are.
In “Shellspeak” Gartland calls to mind Shelley’s Ozymandias in these somber lines: “Your drama is a flicker/by the wide and wasteful sea,/your tower of words is drowned/and lost, by tidal law’s decree,/and nothing you have built will stand/in the sideways-running universe of crabs.”
Returning to London, and the idea of juxtaposition, in “Nothing but the River,” Gartland writes of “Saxon swords and junkies’ needles,” illuminating the hard truth that socioeconomic warfare on the masses through the dispersal of drugs is equal to that of conquering armies’ bloody invasions.
Approaching the midpoint, we have the first image of Gartland interdicted into a photo (although there have been previous photos of him in his “The Poet Noir” persona), with his face on a poster behind stacked bicycles. This reads as a return to the Eye, ever-watching, ready to report. In the poem that follows the photo there is mention of the “lizard eye” (lizard is a recurring symbol-image in Gartland’s Bangkok cycle).
Next comes a photo. On the horizontal plane at the top of the photo are a dozen or so scooter riders, perhaps stopped at a stop light. In the lower horizontal plane is the blurred image of what seems to be a lone rider zooming through the frame. Looking carefully at the stopped riders, one seems to be wearing a Captain America symbol on his shirt.
A later photo provides another dichotomy as the foreground (a line of empty lounge chairs) plays at odds with the background, which is a foreboding landscape, mediated by what may be a pool and a lone figure moving from left to right (the pool itself foregrounded with a series what might be diving platforms or treadmills). In this world of Blanc et Noir, all appears at odds, yet coexists within the frame.
Just past half way we have two more photographs in juxtaposition. The first is also the cover photo: A girl—late teens?—lifting the bottom of her shirt, showing her muscular abdomen (the “goods”), leaning against a fan that is not on (so no Marilyn Monroe [or even Willem Defoe] sexuality). Some pages later is a photographic story told from top to bottom, left to right. If you scroll down in the e-book, you can see innocence turn into something more lurid. Hughes’ photograph tells a story in Quadrants within the frame, reminding me of a technique used by Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of the film Drive.
In another photograph, Gartland’s image is superimposed on the panels of a dress worn by supermodel Gisele Bündchen. The layers of co-optation demonstrated here are self-reinforcing and almost endless.
“Ahab in rehab” is one of Gartland’s angrier poems, with lines such as: “The fact that you believe that happy ending after Calvary, makes you less of a grown-up, more of an accessory.”
In a beautiful summation of the meat of the metaphorical matter of Moby Dick, we get: “I have chased leviathan in an unforgiving ocean. I learned the demon is no whale, albino white, no superstitious notion of old sailors, but a sounding evil, alien, deep, implacable as night, and certainly I fear him.”

The photograph that follows is of a glass office building reflecting the slums opposite. Integration is a lie, a false reflection. Illusions, as we are nearing the end, are breaking down. A bit later, there is not only a lack of illusion but purposeful separation: a photo of a graffiti-scrawled, broken down van that doubles as someone’s home and one of a beautiful seascape—full-leafed tree in the foreground and two figures at water’s edge.

In a two-part poem called “Thoughts from the West” Gartland gives a summation of Thailand’s central city: “Bangkok – hacked into/by charlatans and magnates,/dystopian projection, or a games programme/for madmen, sprawls below” before journeying to Donegal, Ireland: “The straight road to old friendships … the healing whisper of the trees … I’m breathless in the land’s embrace.” While the opening to the second part shows a kinder, gentler poet, the piece quickly turns. He meets a priest who “greets me with suspicion, sniffing out I’m spoiled by travel, reading” and he soon begins to talk about the darker truth of his homeland: “My grandfather, run off the road/in Galway by the Black and Tans,/my father’s father, reaching/for his gas mask on the Somme.” More dichotomies and juxtapositions.

Back in Bangkok, there is a photograph of a building that, for lack of a better explanation, looks as though it is being engulfed by nature. The poem that follows speaks of “City Limits” and “city limits.” As I write this review, the southern coastal United States, where I live, as well as Haiti and the Bahamas, have just been through Hurricane Matthew. Being engulfed by nature—an imminent threat beyond the city limits.

The final piece in this collection is a photo of a city center, its billboard filled with the previous image of Gisele Bündchen’s body, the dress panels containing Gartland’s visage, gazing out—not from the shadows and alleys, barrooms or poetry stages, but from the center of it all.

Within the City Limits, and well above and beyond.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

“Pinprick Ekphrastics”: A Review of several chapbooks by Rupert M. Loydell and others

 (publishers: original plus, Analogue Flashback Books, Smallminded Books; all published in 2016 with the exception of Lost in the Slipstream, 2009)

It is rare when a reviewer gets an opportunity to review numerous works from a single author all at once. I start with two mini-books, 3 inches by 4 inches. A Light Shines Down (Smallminded Books), is based on photographs by Gregory Crewdson (which are not included). Hall of Mirrors reminded me of the postcards and other self-made visual–written works that I used to receive by the dozens monthly in the early 2000s when I was an active mail-art poet. It is ingeniously cut and folded from a single piece of paper—a piece of two-dimensional origami that adds an extra layer to the experience of the work.
A good bit of Loydell’s writing is in the form of Ekphrastic poetry (where the poet creates a response to an existing piece of art, be it visual or written/musical). In Love Songs for an Echo, the titles of the poems for the sequence “Nine Postcards” are taken from Hiroshi Yoshimura’s album, Music for Nine Post Cards.
The main themes of Love Songs for an Echo are places, real and imagined (“invisible cities” “crystal city”) and the experiences of travel (“anonymity in a crowded street”): “From the fragments of the world we make meaning, from the notes that we hear we make a song” [“The Notes that We Hear”]
Loydell also extends the boundaries of Ekphrastic works by writing about other poets, musicians, and artists. The writer may be in isolation in the act of creation, but the creative space is crammed full of echoes, Muses, and ghosts: “I always return to the same few writers’ work, which … struggles to find faith in something as the world bewilders and blinds” [“One by One”]
And, of course, on the act of writing itself: “By scattering fragments of text, juxtaposing them with unrelated events or images, you make them appear precious” [“One by One”]. This is the first of many pinpricks in the reviewed works (hard to argue with, and I have no intention of doing so).
Lost in the Slipstream works as a meditation on the nature of time, replete with lines like: “Newspaper cuttings from tomorrow [“Forget”], “the present only exists to stop us being confused by time” [“Middle”], “we all have our own version of you, invented past…” [“Seed”], and “Memory floats back to the surface, mumbling and slightly out of tune” [“Circle”]. This collection’s titles are taken from the D.N.E. album 47 Songs Humans Shouldn’t Sing.
Nerve Damage, which Loydell edited, features texts written in response to a photograph called “The Poet,” taken by Joel-Peter Witkin. Titles such as Paul Sutton’s “The Failed Poet” contributed to the name I gave this review. Sutton’s poem, which leads off the collection, says, “God, is he still writing?/No one reads his stuff, or cares.” Note the layered meaning of “God” here as an general expletive but also, perhaps, as God “himself.” From Alan Halsey’s “The Poet”: “…he was a poet ‘among other things’ but that wasn’t what I’d asked. What interested me were the other things.” In an untitled poem by George Ttoouli: “The audience wilfully ignores the intentions of the poet.”
The responses provide a wide variety of approaches and styles, from literal interpretations of the contents and mise en scène of the elements in the photograph to narratives that use the “characters” in the photograph to create a story to highly experimental pieces that have used the photograph for only the briefest spark of initial inspiration. Ekphrastic poetry should operate this way. Kudos to Loydell for bringing such a wide array of responses to a single prompt.
John Phillips gets the penultimate word in his poem “This”: “Whatever else it is a poem/is often nothing/more than thinking/there’s something there to be/found when there’s/nothing but thinking so.”
The last chapbook I review is The Gospel According to Archbishop Makeshift. The first offering is by Rupert Loydell. I liken the seven pages to the Proverbs of Hell in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. A sample:
“Archbishop Makeshift says this game has no rules but we should all keep playing.”
“Archbishop Makeshift says the voice of the world is hidden deep inside every word he speaks.”
“Archbishop Makeshift says he is pure diamond no his body has been burned away.”
“Archbishop Makeshift says the things you do do things to him.”
“Archbishop Makeshift says starve the guards and feed the hostage.”

Who is the Archbishop? On the cover, in a sketch by A.C. Evans, we have the Archbishop in elaborate, highly detailed mitre, with skeletal face and his shoulders and chest lighter and lighter as they move downward. As Mike Ferguson tells us, “The Archbishop waxed/lyrical in loose sonnets/with themes found in real life…so sermonizing/without scripture.”
The Archbishop is also contextualized in “Two Fragments from the Makeshift School,” written by H.L. Hix, which opens: “These two fragments, discovered in the pocket of a plaid jacket at a Salvation Army thrift store…” It further declares that they are deemed to be forgeries by one of his disciples. Indeed. Is the Archbishop only his (mis)interpreted sermons? In poems by Daniel Y Harris and Irene Koronas, we get the run-on sermonizing of Emmanuelle and Paulain Makeshift: Disciples? Counterparts? Echoes?
In a title-nod to the Beatles, “Poem (Revolution #19)” gives us the provocative: “Who can live/where happiness is considered a disgrace?” and “this brute of a country is more than I can stand—/let it be delivered into the hands of foreigners.” Not even the Archbishop’s admonishments, observations, and prescriptions can save them.
In another poem by Loydell, “The Shape of Paradise,” he says, “the magician in me has run out of spells.” Considering that “spell(-)ing” of words goes back to a time when mystics, alchemists, and orators better understood the power behind words and their sounds, this is a hard statement indeed and resonates with the larger thesis that poetry and poets have lost their power.
Book-ending with the original story of Archbishop Makeshift is the final poem, by Charlie Baylis, which reports that “The following Sunday I see the Archbishop collapsed in a deckchair, sporting a pink cagoule. ‘Oh Father!’ I always knew it would end like this.”
Loydell and company seem to know the same of all of us poets, everywhere.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

“Dark Beginnings, Dark Expressions”: A Review of The Trinity, by K. P. Ambroziak

(Published by the author, 2015). ISBN: 9781519740649
by Joey Madia
Beneath the title of this book appear the words “A suspense novel.”
I had mixed feelings about this. Having read the first two books in Ambroziak’s vampire trilogy, The Journal of Vincent Du Maurier, I was already aware of the author’s facility with suspense but I wondered at the expectations of what such a statement might produce.
No need to wonder… The Trinity lives up to its label. And more.
Some novels are more challenging than others to review, because to say almost anything specific is to give more than a little away, which robs the reader of that which I most savored and for which the writer worked so hard.
So I will have to do a lot of “talking around” plot points here, and give you just the broad strokes of what Ambroziak attempts—and accomplishes—in the book.
At its core, The Trinity is about the Roman Catholic Church… a subject of which I am a student and scholar, both in the sense of having been raised Catholic and, in my early teens, contemplating becoming a priest and as a writer who often uses Catholicism as the basis for my books. It is clear that Ambroziak is well versed in the nuances of both scripture and ritual and in the training and initiation into the priesthood.
On the one hand, the Catholic Church’s secrets and sins have been done to death in books and films—the Exorcism genre remains ever-popular—and as I was finishing my read of this book, I watched Spotlight, a film about the abusive priest scandal in Boston. But before we walk away too quickly as artists and audience, we have to admit that the Catholic Church, having culled its dogma and rituals from such a wide variety of myths and spiritual systems, is ever-fertile ground to explore the thorniest moral matters of humanity.
Ambroziak’s novel is far from the same-old, same-old as far as the darkest aspects of the Church. She conjures new expressions of the myths that have given us the Catholic conceptions of Satan and the Garden of Eden. Through her complicated cast of priests, Church officers, and their targets and agents (all of whom are part of or constellate around the mysterious Order of Eve and, governing it, The Trinity), Ambroziak explores the nature of Love through the cracked, distorted lens of the multi-dimensional world she creates. The Trinity shares this with her vampire novels.
For those who have an interest in how the Catholic Church has (mis)perceived and portrayed women in both its literature and practices, there is much to appeal to you here.
Lest we get too far into the Catholic-ness of the novel, all those who love a good mystery, with plenty of twists, turns, secrets, reveals, and a gruesome, symbol-rich murder or two will find that The Trinity does not disappoint. Out of the tropes of the suspense genre, Ambroziak gleans plenty that is fresh and new.
Like Anne Rice, she weaves impressive amounts of historical–cultural knowledge into her worlds, creating a rich tapestry of image and detail that complements her craftsmanship with structure and facility with language without slowing the narrative down.
Ambroziak must also be congratulated for her skill in marketing her self-published books on both Amazon and social media and her commitment to flawless product. In reading and reviewing three of her books I have yet to find a single typographical error. She is both an example and credit to the small press and self-publishing worlds, whose books are ever increasingly becoming as strong as the books put out by the major publishing houses.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

“Narrative Noir”: A Review of John Gartland’s Resurrection Room: Bangkok dark rhetoric

 (Lizardville Productions, 2016)
“One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster/The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free’You'll find a god in every golden cloister/And if you're lucky then the god's a she/I can feel an angel sliding up to me” (“One Night in Bangkok,” Chess)
There are cities in the world that pulse with a deep mystique: the sleepless dichotomies of New York; the romanticism of Paris for lover and writers; the foggy Victorian mystery of London… the list goes on and on.
Bangkok (Thailand) conjures images of crowded streets full of steaming food, rickshaw drivers, and exotic women finger-motioning from alleyways and doorways… and Resurrection Room takes these images wider and deeper than perhaps your average reader wants to go.
Which makes it essential reading.
Gartland—a true Renaissance man known in writers’ circles as the “Poet Noir”—pulls no punches. In his several books of poetry, his misericordia-sharp Facebook posts, and his Robert Anton Wilson–esque novel Orgasmus (you can read excerpts from my review at the back of Resurrection Room), Gartland strides the barbed ex-patriot boundaries of a Seeker who splits energy between East and West, Occident and Orient, and who shamelessly shares the costs and conditions of such a state of being.
Resurrection Room opens as follows:
“The rain continued, an inescapable tyranny of rain; a venomous hiss of rain, like amplified static on an audio feed; a steady crackle of dread between broadcasts.”
This opening sets both the tone and structure of the book: it unfolds exactly as described, mixing straight narrative with poetry and an almost stream-of-consciousness jazz writing that originates with a narrator who is often as delusional and untrustworthy as those of Poe.
Resurrection Room is an exquisite blend of worlds, where the Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror meets Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, spawning complexly cross-cultural, image-laden lines such as: “Orson Welles, sunk in a Rembrandt chiaroscuro; he was Olivier’s doomed Danish prince, beckoning to Jung.”

The dreamscape rendering of Gartland’s Thailand is overrun with Bible-plague lizards who leave their stain (their shit) over everything—objects, rooms, landscapes, and people—while the writer-actors who populate its human pulse plot and plan to keep their souls in an airless university landscape where they must reconcile the lies of why they remain with the dreams that initially drew them.
Gartland must be credited for working from a clear through-line, from which the sparks of the jazz prose and poetry emanate with a life of their own without abandoning the forward momentum of the narrative. This through-line is elegantly simple: An English department at a Thailand university is being moved toward a Business emphasis, dashing the dreams of its transplant professors to teach the Arts to their students (and keep them alive in themselves). The Administration (led by the complicated “Miniporn Soopalek, known to her friends as Grendel’s mother”) is portrayed as cold, heartless, and as caricatured as the bureaucrats of Douglas Adams and C.S. Lewis—making them the perfect foils for the all too flawed heroes of our tale, who are the types of dark truth-seeking messes that would get along great with Hunter S. Thompson’s coterie of foreign-landing journalists.
Amongst this cast are the pointedly named Watson and Holmes and L. Semper Lazarus, a mysterious immortal who tells their tale, all the while intermixing his experiences of his resurrection at the hands of Jesus, the Ostrogoths, the de Medici’s and Macchiavelli (whom he pushed to write The Prince), Hastings, and the gas-gushed trenches of World War I.
“Ypres, Arras and the Somme;
of some infernal triptych
Hieronymus Bosch nightmare
he’d been painted into”
Like Anne Rice's Louie wandering the plague-filled streets of New Orleans, Semper seems to crave this dark and bloody fuel as his reason to (pardon the pun) soldier on. Why wouldn't an immortal crave the death-fields of battle?
The themes of Resurrection Room are far ranging, as would be expected from a Renaissance man like Gartland, who has studied and written in a wide range of styles and subject matter. Resurrection Room touches on vampirism and alchemy, while indicting politics and, especially, education and religion (it is a university founded by monks after all), diving through the layers of a corrupt, off-kilter system where no justice is to be had and everyone is trying to stay one step ahead of getting scammed or exposed by everyone else.
Indeed, the book’s structure is itself out of balance—the “prologue” (the unnamed opening) is about 25% of the book, followed by only two chapters.
One of the main themes in Resurrection Room is the pursuit of creative and emotional freedom, full expression, through the use of ritual and drugs, which serve as a thematic crossroads for lashing all of the disparate areas of examination together:
 “The elaborate progress of a priest through the transcendent pantomime
of the eucharist, the preparations and Ming-glazed equipage
of the Japanese tea ceremony, were no less ornate and stylised than
the ritualised foreplay of this methamphetamine harlot.”
While describing a Thai puppet theatre: “these puppeteers control their subject with the power of ritual, and the lightness of art.”
“Byron, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and, of course, De Quincey, among them, certainly used laudanum and opium. Dickens refers to it in the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood. So many, in fact, indulged, that it is a missing part of the jigsaw in our modern analysis of their work… Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, to dull the pain of his moral decomposition, sought out the oblivion of opium dens…”

I would add to his list Rimbaud and Blake. And, of course, all of the Holmesian imagery and references fit needle in arm with the rest.

Regarding the indictment of education: “The uneducated masses are easily led, and misled. A cynic might say, it is in the interests of the powerful to keep educational standards unimproved. … In the University in which we are employed, where is there any evidence of creativity or independent thought? When does one ever
hear a student offer a radical view? When does one hear the voice of
compassion for the dispossessed?”
And religion: “Hubert of Tours, the dark eminence who fired the
imagination of the Marquis de Sade.” Hubert suffers a drubbing at the point of Gartland’s pen, which draws light into the ebony truths of sexual dysfunction and politics in the Roman Catholic Church. Gartland brings together education and religion in the book through one of the secret-hiding administrators, and locks it up with a smile in a pair of hot pink handcuffs.
In the end, as with so many, if not all, matters of Art, it comes down to Story: who has it, who controls it, who tells theirs the loudest. When the book’s anti-hero says: “he had been looking for a narrative, and I gave him one. I gave him a part in mine. I have so many; I ache with narratives, like old wounds” he speaks for many, if not all, writers and artists. I think of Hemingway, of Fitzgerald, of London, and of Joyce.

Similar to Orgasmus, and the Illuminati tales of R. A. Wilson, the last fifth of the book delivers as expected with a relentless ratcheting up of the tension, interweaving the storylines and exploding—literally—with what has been simmering from the start.

A fitting end to the book, and to this review, are the last lines of the final poem:

“Carl Cutlass, tail-gunner,
spiraling to Hanoi,
finger extended.”

The extension of the finger, coupled with the spiraling artistry of the writing, is what makes Gartland well worth a read in these shit-stained, warped-tale times.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

“A Collaborator in Alleys”: A Poem-Review of Eileen Tabios’ The Connoisseur of Alleys

(Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk Press, www.marshhawkpress.org, 2016)
To mark the occasion of my tenth review of a poetry collection by the prolific and boundary-stretching poet Eileen Tabios, I knew I wanted to do something special—something that would honor Eileen’s ability to take the reader from a position of relative passivity to one of co-creation.
I made an attempt at this before, ending my review of Tabios’ Sumptuous Sculpture (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002) with a poem crafted from another one of my reviews (Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole, same publisher and year).
This review, however, takes things much further. Since beginning her ongoing work “Murder, Death, and Resurrection (MDR),” Eileen has created new poems and published seven books that use re-constituted lines from a database of 1,146 lines from her previous works. The Connoisseur of Alleys is one such work.
Following suit, the following is a poem formed from 27 lines taken from my 9 previous reviews of Tabios’ work (3 lines pulled from each). Using a combination of I Ching–inspired coin tossing and one of my own random generator algorithms that I use for my experimental prose projects, the lines have been reformed in what I hope will be both a testament to not only the form and substance of Tabios’ poetic tapestry as I have written about it over the years and a testament to Tabios’ ability to inspire and co-create from afar, through the power of her words and fearless pursuit of new forms to deliver them.
“dieci da nove”
I forgot the hooks are finely barbed and grab you in the deepest places. I forgot each line begins with the phrase “I forgot” which was inspired by a Tom Beckett poem that began in the same manner. I forgot the condition of the artist and one’s Identity (geographically, sexually, psychologically) are key subjects in the considerable volume of work Tabios has created. I forgot poets have been either continually revising their poems (e.g., Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) or taking found texts, etc. to create works for a long time now…
I forgot, 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. I forgot the riches to be mined are as endless as the possibilities emerging from Tabios herself. I forgot ancient wisdom says that once you find the moon, you no longer need the finger that points to it. I forgot that we, the Readers, are the locks into which the various and sundry keys are meant to enter.
I forgot there is always counterpoint, yin and yang, light in dark. I forgot “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. I forgot scores do not necessarily reflect Math aptitude, but a slew of other deficiencies in Communication. I forgot that the age of Empire was not overcome and obliterated, but merely morphed into the age of the Multinationals.
I forgot Tabios is not only a talented wordsmith, and visual artist of language—she truly is an innovator.
I forgot 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. I forgot the rich wordsmithed novels of the Victorian and Edwardian age, when books were thick and wordy because they were expensive and had to last the reader a good long while. I forgot how much I enjoy creating narrative from the nigredo of cultural reference and biographical minutiae. I forgot I’ve always admired Hunter S. Thompson and Sebastian Junger…
I forgot 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 forgot the source material is reconstituted in exquisite couplets full of enjoyable word play and just the right amount of sexual zing to bring a nearly constant smile to one’s face. I forgot it is up to the reader to find unity in disparity; to be the catalyst in an alchemical transaction (a hieros gamos) that rises beyond Reality into the etheric realms where the nigredo of our art is born(e).
I forgot many of the poems have no end punctuation, leaving the thought, the situation, the moment unfinished, as they so often are

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Review of The Unseen Partner: Love and Longing in the Unconscious, by Diane Croft (Interleaf, 2016). ISBN: 978-0-9967771-0-0 (hardcover)

The source and substance of inspiration are as enigmatic and oft-debated as any of life’s deepest mysteries. Artists in all areas of creativity have been known to undertake ritual, engage in the use of various substances, or conceive of the work in terms of some vast, metaphorical battlefield where the artist must pay in pints of etheric, ghostly blood for the Muses to bestow even the smallest gift of good art upon them. Creativity gurus such as Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic) and Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) lead the field with their insights and ideas regarding creativity and inspiration and their relationship to the work.
In Unseen Partner, Diane Croft tells her story of the source and substance of inspiration through the lens of automatic writing: ten years ago she had an experience of this phenomenon that produced, over the course of three years, in excess of 700 poetry verses. The experience would happen “about the same time every morning.” Croft, in an endnote, mentions William Butler Yeats and William Blake, and their experiences with creating through this means, and one might also think of Nostradamus and Philip K. Dick (the latter used the I Ching to write The Man in the High Castle). Croft makes no definitive statement as to whether this was the product of her own subconscious or of an external force from another dimension—which makes Unseen Partner about the poems and their meaning (personal and universal), rather than an exercise in trying to prove from whence they came.
Having two people close to me who communicate with their own Unseen Partners through automatic writing, with profound results of precognition and verifiable details (at times years in advance), I agree that the sooner one moves away from debating the source and concentrating on the messages, the better.
Croft’s journey through this process was not easy (she professes she thought the Unseen Partner could “kill” her and also that hidden aspects of herself came through that produced shame), she persisted, and the result is a beautifully rendered book with a selection of the poems, accompanying artwork (obtained through the copyright-free website Wikimedia Commons), and Jungian and other texts used for analysis of the poems.
As writers, we often struggle to gain the necessary distance from our work to analyze and improve it. It becomes precious to us in the blink of an eye. Given this struggle, I found it fascinating that Croft had the insight to know that these poems were coming from a place—whether interior or exterior—distanced enough from her own conscious background in writing that she was able to analyze them as a critic or reader might. When Croft writes “I take this poem to mean” it cues creators to aspire to a new level of objective detachment from their work. Because of this enforced distance between Creator and Creation, the poems in Unseen Partner are like dreams, begging to be born anew through analysis and the act of sharing them with an audience.
Croft does not settle on one name or definition of what a higher source or “god” might be, which allowed her to pull from a wide range of sources for the epigraph that precedes each poem/image dyad and to center on the relationship of the “I” and the “thou.” We hear from the likes of Rumi, Meister Eckert, Carl Jung, and Jungian “disciple and pioneer” Dr. Edward F. Edinger. Considering the condition of Tat Tvam Asi (“Thou art That,” from the Sanskrit), the lines are further blurred, as the vessel (in this case, Croft), the message (the poem), and the messenger (the Unseen Partner) are inextricably linked.
A quick word about the poem/image dyad before exploring some examples from the book. When a poet uses an image for inspiration (or vice versa), this is called Ekphrasis. The example most often used is Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” It is impossible to know from the book if Croft is aware of this practice (she says in the introduction that she “felt the need” to find accompanying images), but it is a natural fit, and a testament to the power of following our instincts and inspirations in any creative endeavor.
Although this is far more than a collection of poems, the poems themselves hold merit in and of themselves. Like the works of Rumi or Li Po, they contain a simplicity of format, vivid images, and a gentle, peaceful rhythm:
I am the night covering me
in memories of how I was before
I slipped into this mindfulness. (From “Memory”)

The gods grew tired of waiting
and woke me from a heavy sleep
not by shaking my shoulder
but by breaking my heart. (From “Matters of Heart)

At times, they operate like koans, posing contemplative questions:
“Who is this three of thee and me” (From “Holy Ghost”)
Those familiar with the Rule of Three or Gurdjieff’s Law of Three will see that this notion of the new third emerging from two opposites in balance is reflective of Croft and the Unseen Partner collaborating on this book. Croft chose the following quote, from the Tao Te Ching, to precede the analysis section for this poem: “The one engenders the two, the two engenders the three and the three engenders all things.”
As the book progresses, those familiar with archetypes and how they operate will find abundant treasure here. From notions of the Hero’s Journey to the presence of that powerful Trickster totem animal, Crow, the poems are aspects and reflections of numerous world cultures and mythologies, many of which the author discovered as she was writing the commentary for the book. This, again, is a refreshing reversal of the writer’s usual way of working: gathering research and either using it as a starting point or infusing the writing with pieces and parts of the detail.
In the Epilogue, Croft writes, “My own myth—drawn from a universal database of archetypal imagery—is fashioned from my personal complexes.” This is a profound statement to which I think Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung would readily agree. I quote it for two reasons: First, because I believe that this is the well from which all art springs and second, because of the following quote, from the Acknowledgments:  “a book consultant, meaning to be helpful, posed this question: So. You have no credentials in this field, no standing, no platform, no colleagues … and you want to publish a book on archetypal psychology? (emphasis in original). 
I feel fortunate that Croft was not dissuaded by this question, but pursued with increased fervor her 15-year quest to bring this collection to others. After all, what are credentials, standing, platforms, and colleagues when a person’s personal complexes and veiled Muses conspire with the universal database of archetypal imagery?
They are the cold, neutral ash from which the dynamic phoenix of creation takes flight.

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Review of In the Oneness of Time: The Education of a Diviner, by William Douglas Horden

A Review of In the Oneness of Time: The Education of a Diviner, by William Douglas Horden (Burdett, NY: Larson Publicans, 2015). ISBN: 978-1-936012-76-3 (paperback)
By Joey Madia
It is said that, when you are “following your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell would say, or walking the Good Red Road of Native American spirituality, the teachings you most need in the moment will find you. Six and a half years ago, this maxim was made manifest in a book co-authored by William Douglas Horden titled The Toltec I-Ching (also from Larson Publications). When it arrived in the mail with a request for review, I was in the midst of opening an arts education center that would house the social justice theatre company of which I am the founding artistic director. As with any big endeavor, there were endless meetings with political and community leaders, business groups, educators, potential donors, and prospective teachers and it seemed that everyone had a different idea of what the arts education center should be, including its interior design, programmatic content, and even hours of operation.
Looking for answers deep within, in order to honor (and protect) the mission of the theatre company and our other arts programs, I found The Toltec I-Ching to be an invaluable aid.
A great deal has happened with my arts mission since that time, including closing the center and leaving the state where it was founded, and changing the name of the theatre company, all in part to honor the messages gleaned from The Toltec I-Ching. In recent months, I have begun to lay the foundations in our current home to create new material for the company, hire administrative staff and passionate creatives, and set up classes and auditions. Not long after the process was begun, I received for review Horden’s newest book, In the Oneness of Time. It has proven to be just the guide I needed to find clarity and strength for this new journey.
Perhaps, upon reflection, it is more accurate to say this stage of a continuing journey, because this book is unlike any other I have read. It consists of two parts: the first is called Teachings and the second provides Commentary on the Teachings. The interesting thing is that the Teachings are each titled by year, but they are not sequential. At times they are grouped by loose themes, such as geography or stories about specific flora and fauna, although, with each turn of the page, I found my default need to analyze and categorize (to “make sense of”) the structure slipping away, and I increasingly took each Teaching as it came, as its own opportunity for engagement, contemplation, and meditation.
Horden’s Teachings vary widely in their content and also in their style (some report the facts, while others are a poetic prose that recalled to me William Blake), although all share a surface simplicity that belies their true depth, leaving the reader to explore as deeply as he or she will. I chose not to read the accompanying Commentary for each Teaching, instead reading all of the Teachings and then the Commentary section. This allowed me to do the good work of engagement, contemplation, and meditation “on my own” and then, when I felt it was helpful, revisit the Teachings after reading the Commentary for each.
I encourage you to explore the book however your intuition guides you. I plan on re-reading it yearly, taking a different approach each time. As I change, so shall the methods I use to glean the treasures of the Teachings and Commentary.
Although In the Oneness of Time covers many topics, its “spine” or “through-line” as a writer might say, is the bridging of the two Realities: the tonal (“ordinary consensual reality”) and the nagual (“the non-ordinary reality of shamans and mystics”). The methods of moving between them, and of entering the In-Between World, are the most resonant aspect of the book at this point in my focus and learning, and the Teachings reflect the exquisite balance I mentioned earlier that Horden’s writing styles maintain between these two realities. These dual perspectives consistently at work in our lives demonstrate the value of widening the overlap between the tonal and nagual, for this sweet spot of the In-Between World is the creation-space for Meaning and Healing—of ourselves, our immediate community, and our world.
Another aspect of the book that has high resonance for me (and why I think it is prominently compared to Carlos Castaneda’s books about the brujo Don Juan Matus) is the wisdom Horden’s teacher passes down about the nature of teaching and learning. Teaching takes time to be absorbed, before the student can go off and become a teacher him- or herself. Rushing the process creates a great deal of mis-learning that then translates into misunderstandings as opinion masquerading as wisdom is (inaccurately) passed on. This is akin to the idea of the 10,000 hours that one must put in to achieve mastery in any area; when Horden’s teacher, Master Khigh, says that he took a vow to wait thirty years before teaching, it reminded me of what the actor Eli Wallach said about learning the Sanford Meisner technique: it takes 25 years. Perhaps that is the time it takes for the ego to recede sufficiently to not mar the process.
Alongside such powerful books on the nature of living and dying such as Neil Donald Walsch’s Home with God: In a Life That Never Ends and Elaine Mansfield’s Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief, In the Oneness of Time provides comfort and clarity on the nature of the soul and its experiences on Earth and elsewhere. Horden’s experiences with life after death are highlights of the book.
For those interested in this material in a multi-media format, either when deciding whether or not the book is for them, or as value-added after/while reading the book, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fgd432XGX0w
In this age of divisiveness, Horden’s message of Communication and Communion is a blessing; it will no doubt illuminate many a reader’s path.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Review of Terror’s Identity, by Sarah Maury Swan

(published through Sable Books, 2015). ISBN: 978-0-9968036-3-2 (paperback)

Young audiences (YA) is a hot market. From Maze Runner to Hunger Games, Mortal Instruments to Divergent, stories that can hold interest, empower the reader, and provide a satisfying ending or intense cliffhanger are not only guaranteed to sell (and often secure a film deal) but they serve a much more important purpose: in the age of cyber-tech and video gaming (often the same thing), they keep traditional book-based storytelling alive.
Terror’s Identity, by Sarah Maury Swan, delivers the best of YA in all the right ways. From the very first page, the story of a sixteen-year-old boy’s navigation of a no-less-than life-threatening situation for him and his family kept me engaged and eager to find out what would happen next. The characters, both teenagers and adults, are believable in both their actions and dialogue, and the story itself is told with insistent pace and an elegant simplicity while the plot is rich, complex, and full of interesting clues and misdirection.
The main character, Aidan, is your typical high school kid—struggling to find his place, awkward with girls, into his pets and hot and cold with his family and keen to know about life. His father, however, works for an anti-terrorism unit—a situation that necessitates the family leaving their home in the middle of the night as the book opens as their house burns to the ground and their former life with it.
Have you ever been the new kid at school? Not an easy thing under the best of circumstances. Having started my first day of freshman year in a brand new town 2 hours from where I had grown up after a series of events that, although less dramatic than Aidan’s, were easily as traumatic, I immediately felt for him and his sister Maya as they tried to make the best of their thorny situation. Saying goodbye to the family pets, their father, and their names/identities all in the course of an action-packed night, Aidan (now Brent) and Maya (now Angie) struggle to fit in among queries about where they’ve come from by students and teachers, neither of which are always kind about it.
I particularly appreciated the trouble Aidan/Brent had keeping it all straight. From computer log-ins to lies about his father being dead to mistakes about the little details we don’t think about under normal circumstances, he finds himself almost outing the truth of his situation numerous times. This makes sense, given that teenagers are, by nature, curious about new people who come into their lives and there is nothing that takes more energy and focus than being consistent in your secrets and lies.
Another strength of Terror’s Identity is that Swan has approached Terrorism (a word that has always been a battleground of definition among scholars) with all the complexity that it deserves, which serves the story by keeping the reader guessing about who the true terrorists are—what should be safe harbors often are not and those we are conditioned to distrust turn out to be more like us than we know—and also sends a much needed message to young readers that nothing should be taken at face value when it comes to terrorism, whether it be religious, economic, or political. I also appreciated that the terrorists were so full of their own self-righteousness that they made plenty of mistakes along the way.
Structurally, the book has everything one would expect for the target audience and genre—short chapters that are briskly paced; a mid-point complication that sets up an even brisker pace toward the climax; and an accessibility of language and syntax. There are effective emotional moments and the books dwells on relationships without becoming saccharine.
I recommend this book for early teen to mid-teen reading groups in libraries and classrooms. According to the acknowledgments, the first eight chapters were critiqued by a class of students during the development process, which shows the author’s commitment to being authentic as possible without being a modern-world teenager herself.