Tuesday, December 6, 2011

“Weighing in with Words”: A Review of Vittorio Carli’s A Passion for Apathy: Collected and Rejected Poems

(Press of the 3rd Mind, Chicago, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-9800257-3-9)

On the last page of this brand new First Edition, there is an opportunity for readers to write in for free samples of collections by such well-known independent poets as Bradley Lastname, Eric Johnt, Robert Pomerhn, and Patrick Porter. In the past nine years I have reviewed several of the works listed. I recommend them all and any other titles you can acquire from this Chicago-based small press, because quality and relevancy are guaranteed.

With this in mind, I was honored to have received an advance copy of Carli’s book and it didn’t disappoint.

Being a college teacher of film, literature, and humanities as well as a reviewer of film and art and collaborative performance artist, Carli is a poet that unapologetically tells it like he sees it, dissecting from his own multi-faceted and hyper-personal perspective such topics as literary academia, Death, the personalities of the Chicago poetry scene, reality vs. illusion in numerous areas, man vs. woman, the current state of Vampire lore, and a plethora of pop cultural and more obscure references, including his “Poem for a Friend who Hates Movies” and multi-page list of personalities that passed on in 2006 (no small irony that Darren McGavin and Dan Curtis died the same year).

My favorite poem in the collection is called “The Trouble with Librarians” (which brought to mind at least title-wise Lou Reed and John Cale’s “Trouble with Classicists” on Songs for Drella), a laundry list of politico-cultural Conspiracy Theory all laid in the laps of those oh so innocuous librarians…

Like many of my professor friends, Carli laments in “Ballad of an Adjunct” the thankless work of the academic. Reading things like this always makes me glad I left graduate school after a single semester…

…and he then goes on in “Ode to all the People I Love” to lambaste to greater and lesser degrees the Arts practitioners as well… so now I think I’m screwed…

Libraries, out. Academia, out. Stages, out.

Ah—but there’s always Las Vegas!

But, after reading “Viva Las Vegas” I am pretty sure Las Vegas is morte.

Carli employs similar sarcasm with “In Praise of Woody Allen,” a guy I never, ever liked… except maybe as a CG Ant…

I need to make it clear that this relatively small (68 pages) collection is in no way narrow or repetitious, either stylistically or thematically. Far from. There is free verse, rhyming verse (where Carli shows the least originality and strength), language poetry, story-poems, repetitive poems, and even a bit of vispo, and the ending poem of the book: “Theological Parody” is something else again, and well worth a few careful reads.

Poet–publisher Bradley Lastname and Press of the 3rd Mind continue to be at the forefront of the small and independent press, and in this transitional time of major publishers dealing with the drive to digital, it will be smaller presses like this one that will provide the stability of their traditions and quality catalogs and a place for good poets to go while the bigger guys are hiding out and game-planning new ways to keep their hands in the pie.

Monday, November 28, 2011

“Vampire Pastiche”: A Review of Gary Lee Vincent’s Darkened Hills

(Burning Bulb Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 9781453844854)

I’ve always enjoyed just a little more works of fiction that take place in locales with which I am familiar. It adds something special when I can not only visualize a place, but have actually been there.

Having lived and traveled extensively in the northern half of West Virginia since moving here a little over four years ago, I found the locales in which Vincent places his vampires to be perfectly suited to both their peculiar sensibilities and those of their typical victims.

Darkened Hills is the first installment of Darkened—The West Virginia Vampire Series (the second book, Darkened Hallow, is now available. It’s sitting on my shelf, ready to be read). It is the 2010 Book of the Year Winner from ForeWord Reviews Magazine and shares a publisher, Burning Bulb, with The Big Book of Bizarro, which I also recently reviewed. Vincent was a contributing editor. He has published several non-fiction books as well as the novel Passageway and has a background and Ph.D. in Computer Information Systems. In addition to being an author, editor, and publisher he is also a recording artist, with three albums to his credit.

For Darkened Hills, Vincent draws heavily on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Stephen King’s de-/re-construction of it, Salem’s Lot. Being that he is so up front and obvious about it, the way King was, makes it solidly a pastiche in the tradition of Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes books or Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, making it all the more fun to read, especially with its West Virginia¬–centric settings (including the fictional town of Melas, a mirror image of the real town of Salem. Yes. Salem. It fits.).

Each section or chapter opens with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe, many of them from more obscure works and all chosen for their appropriateness to what follows. I enjoyed reading them as much as the book itself.

Within its well-known framework and cast of characters, Darkened Hills, both by virtue of its unique setting and the imaginative mind of its author, manages to stand on its own in the town-is-demonized-and-disintegrated-while-unlikely-heroes-fight-the-forces-of-evil subset of the vampire canon, and it left me eager to read the sequel. It is well-paced, deft in its handling of multiple storylines unfolding at once, and Vincent knows the geography and the way it plays on the minds of its inhabitants quite well.

Speaking of the inhabitants, Darkened Hills runs the gamut from small-town and backwoods folk, to occultists, clergy, police, mental health professionals, and, of course, the guy who returns to his hometown with dreams of buying its weird old mansion just in time to find its been bought by a mysterious man (who we later find out is a vampire).

Peppered with just the right amounts of graphic violence and sex (less than, say, True Blood but more than Bram Stoker’s Dracula), the novel has appeal to the vampire story enthusiast as well as the more casual horror reader looking for a quick read with easily understood characters and an uncomplicated storyline.

Look for my review of the sequel to Darkened Hills in the next few months.

Monday, November 7, 2011

“The Place to Get Your Freak On”: A Review of The Big Book of Bizarro

(2011, Burning Bulb Publishing, www.burningbulbpublishing.com)

by Joey Madia

This ambitious collection of over 50 “bizarro” tales, edited by West Virginia authors Rich Bottles Jr. and Gary Lee Vincent, is divided into three sections: Horror, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and Erotica. There are many definitions for the ever-evolving genre of “Bizarro,” including one in the book, although I define it simply as taking graphic violence and erotica a little further than the mainstream would and then, once it’s there, pushing it just a little further.

The potential problem with this approach is that the violence and erotica wind up at times as being the whole point of the work, and there is no story; no craft. To the editors’ credit, there are few stories in this collection that fall into that trap and they stick out like a severed, rotting, puss-running thumb that had previously been up to no good in someone child’s back end (see how Bizarro works?).

In this reviewer’s opinion, the strongest stories are in the Horror section, which makes sense. A lot of violence and a little sex have been the tools of the trade for Horror from the start, so these writers have the clearest, cleanest path to success. Conversely, the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section is the weakest. It is here that it is most obvious that Bizarro was hot-forged into an at-best moderately interesting tale of aliens and the like. The Erotica section starts slowly, but builds over the last four or five stories to a satisfying crescendo of sound and breath and fluid (are you following this Bizarro thing?).

Before I get into some of the best of the stories, I have to mention that the book is impressively laid out, with many of the graphical elements that are missing from most small-press books. There are some interesting illustrations by Jon Towers and the front and back cover images are sure to draw the eye and get people talking. The stories themselves contain a one-line description (most of which are pleasantly clever) and an author bio right there on the title page. I much prefer this to having to constantly flip to the back of the book to a Bio section. The type is clean and large and makes for a fast, easy read. The typos are minimal, a credit to the editors’ work in putting together in a professional presentation 512 pages of layout.

And so, some of my favorites.

In the Horror section, there is “Whore of the Dartmoor” by editor Rich Bottles, Jr. I had the pleasure of hearing Rich read this story aloud at a writer’s group I host (well, most of it… he tactfully removed the sexier parts for our mixed audience of Bizarro and more circumspect writers) and his twisted take on the misuses of public domain works and the riotous wrath of a certain Holmesian author is both entertaining and thought-provoking. I also enjoyed Nikko Lee’s “Honey-Do” (most husbands will) and fellow NJ native Nelson Pyles’s “Decorations” (most wives will). My favorite stories in this section are Jesse Saxon’s “Karnivali” and Michael Migliore’s “Front Page,” both of which are well-researched, well-conceived, and well-executed. The Horror section ends with a poem called “Want” by Meself John, procured by the editors under interesting circumstances (which I will leave for you to read). This piece stands out because in a boundary-pushing landscape like the Big Book of Bizarro, this two-page rant-poem made me ask: “What would the rest of these authors say if they could truly say anything?”

The highlight of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy (and one of the best in the collection) is Kenzi Mathews’s “In Cocoon, I am Embryo,” which is written in a finely haunting, hyper-visual style. I also enjoyed Derek Tabor’s “The Only One to Save,” Sean Martin’s “False Idols,” and D. Harlan Wilson’s “Scotomization,” with its interesting take on the mythic clan that is the Kennedys. Another strong entry in this category is Michael C. Thompson’s “Diethylamide,” which is written in a Beat-like, stream of consciousness, painting-with-words style that includes a vispo-like typography. Like Mathews’ story, it is one of the highlights of the collection.

The Erotica section is, well, pretty erotic. And like the varied acts that are the coin of its realm, it builds slowly but steadily into a satisfying climax, which I might have mentioned earlier. It is in this section, in the first bunch of stories, that graphic writing for its own sake really dings the overall quality of the section, but from Reina Sobin’s “Womb with a View” on to the end (with one or two to-remain-nameless exceptions) there is some really good writing here. Other stories well worth the time are Andree Lachapelle’s “Love Bites,” “Pomegranate Moth” by Richard Godwin, and my favorite of the section, Peter Baltensperger’s “Sonata for Insects and Violins.” I also have to recommend “Fun House” by Kimber Vale, because, in a book of Bizarro, this might very well be the winner of the Weird Award.

Overall, this book is a fun trip with plenty of good writing. When not reading, leave it on the passenger seat of your car, on the coffee table, or by the water cooler at work. Let people know your ready to get your freak on.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Review of Naomi Ruth Lowinsky’s Adagio and Lamentation

(il piccolo editions by Fisher King Press, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-926715-05-6)

It has been a couple of years, since my review of Ed Baker’s Restoration Poems, that I have felt so moved by the prayer that a poem can be and the soul-bearing, soul-reaching prayerbook that is the rare collection such as this.

Lowinsky’s history is complicated and rich. Many of her family members were lost to the concentration camps of World War II Europe. She is the granddaughter of painter Emma Hoffman, whose watercolor of her Berkeley home graces Adagio and Lamentation’s cover. She has endured (more than?) her share of hurt and grief and pain.

And yet these larger circumstances—the mix of tragedy and triumph through the healing that is Art well made and selflessly shared—matter less in the scope of the selections than the Little Things—moments and minor memories; love and its loss; affairs and adjustments.

There is, of course, because of her grandmother’s craft, the taking of inspiration from visual art, but there is also music, and musicality, and, then there are the Words. Because Adagio and Lamentation is oh so rich in words.

The opening poem, “Oma” (her grandmother’s nickname), begins:

I wish you could stop being dead (pg. 1)

And this pull to the ancestors—to know their wisdom, to glean their thoughts, to know their experiences on a level not possible from photographs, and family tales, and history books—informs and strengths every word, every phrase, every poem that comes after.

Along with its artistic inspirations, the collection is rife with religious reference and imagery, woven in such personal and yet Universal terms as to be inviting rather than off-putting to the Outsider, the goyim. There is Invitation here and no Exclusion, perhaps due most of all to the “warts and all” presentation of infidelities and other amorous pursuits.

She paints a total portrait, letting us in, creating levels and passages of insight that elevate the Poem to Prayer, evoked best in the poem “great lake of my mother” (p. 61):

have I told you it’s from you I’ve learned
endurance reflection
how pain crystallized
can create
such radiance

Lowinsky, according to her biography, was not much of a painter, but her placement of words on the page, how they cascade and space themselves for exquisite meaning, makes this hard to believe.
The master work in this Meisterwerk is “what flesh does to flesh,” a poem in five parts. Like the individual scenes of a well-crafted play, this poem, and its interior poems, serves as a microcosm of the rich movement of Adagio and Lamentation, inviting us to celebrate as we meditate; to join in and sit alone to reflect on what is now new through the reading.

For more information on this talented poet, the reader is encouraged to visit www.sisterfrombelow.com

Monday, June 6, 2011

“For Lovers of Our Language”: A Review of Bradley Lastname’s Insane in the Quatrain

(the Press of the 3rd Mind, Chicago, Illinois, 2011)

I was first introduced to Bradley Lastname through his role as publisher of the early books of Patrick Porter and Robert Pomerhn through Press of the 3rd Mind, books they each sent me for review. This was early in the new millennium, when I was doing a lot of poetry writing, mail art, and corresponding with fertile-field poets like Ric Carfagna, Mark Sonnefeld, Joseph Verilli, and Vernon Frazer.

I first experienced Bradley’s writing when I was asked to review the first volume of Letterhead (Highest Hurdle Press, 2007), which was in part a tribute to Harvey Goldner, a mentor of Pomerhn’s. Lastname and his co-editors also produced a second volume of Letterhead, in which some of my own work appeared.

Before starting Press of the 3rd Mind in 1985, Lastname published 25 issues of the acclaimed BILE Dadazine dating from 1978 to 1984.

In addition to publishing over ten books of poetry and prose, he is a painter, sculptor, and collagist and to me, one of the champions of the necessity of poetry, and art, to any sensemaking the modern world is ultimately able to make.

Insane in the Quatrain is a 188-page celebration of all of the ingredients that make poetry the (albeit undervalued) powerful vehicle for socio-cultural-politic commentary and encapsulation that it is. Lastname is the master of wordplay, turning, corkscrewing, and cascading phrases and lyrical structures to produce a mixture of laugh-out-loud, thought-provoking, and at times shocking pieces of poetry.

As one would expect, there is plenty of surrealism, Dadaism, and corollary representations here, as well as a general gamut-running of language poetry styles, but what I like best about Insane in the Quatrain is how substantial it is in content as well as form, which is far from the case with many other language poets, who use the devices and mechanisms of the sub-genre as ends in and of themselves, which, to me, simply doesn’t satisfy.

Take for instance, a very short poem, “Pre- and Post-Sartori” (p. 26):

“Before enlightenment, Los Angeles smells like stale urine.
After enlightenment, stale urine smells like Los Angeles.”

It’s all the off-brand wisdom of Kerouac and the Beats with a healthy dose of humor.

That’s progress.

Although it may not to be to everyone’s tastes, I have always enjoyed poetry with plenty of cultural references, and Insane in the Quatrain offers them in abundance, from Shakespeare to Kierkegaard, Nabokov to Warhol, Richard Dadd to Brother Theodore, Godard to Geller, Artaud to Rimbaud, and Louis Althusser to Aleister Crowley. If an author and the resultant body of work is the sum of his or her experiences of observation, inspiration, and illumination, then such references are the mile-markers and landmarks that the fellow travel can visit for a glimpse behind the curtain and a first-hand dose of the referent.

It should be noted that, enjoyably, and rightly, there is plenty in the way of self-reference as well, be it by name or titles of other Lastname works.

Again, as a purely personal preference, I also enjoyed the many New World Order–type references sewn quietly throughout the poems. I’ll leave it to the (mis?)informed reader to find these little nuggets of what-might-really-be-at-work-here insertion.

“The Torso who Ordered Orzo” (22), “The Fall of the House of Gusher” (64), and “The Tournament” (110) are three examples of longer prose-poems that provide highlights of the collection.

My favorite piece in Insane in the Quatrain is also one of the last: “Quotations from Badly Steamed Lard” [an anagram of Bradley Lastname]. These are the types of one-liner sutra meditations in madness and wonder that will adorn the subway trains and abandoned brick tenements should the NWO raise the silk-spun specters of Crowley, Althusser, Dadd, and Artaud to populate the stages and lecture halls of the Party’s new places.

So go out and get yourself a copy of the latest from Lastname. It might just be one of those prescient kinds of books that are often mistaken for mere non-sense in their time.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

“Another Piece of the Paranormal Puzzle”: A review of Rosemary Ellen Guiley and Philip J. Imbrogno’s The Vengeful Djinn: Unveiling the Hidden Agenda o

(2011, Llewellyn Worldwide, www.llewellyn.com)

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. — Socrates

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.—Hamlet, Act I, sc. v

The Vengeful Djinn, by two scientifically minded experts in the fields of the paranormal and supernatural, is an important contribution to the ongoing pursuit of answers about the Unknown, an often attacked but nevertheless serious undertaking that attracts controversy and derision from both within its ranks and without.

Guiley and Imbrogno cover a large swath of study and territory in the book’s 260 pages, which include two appendices, a bibliography, and an index. They begin with a detailed and yet well-explained tutorial on quantum physical aspects of alternate realities and the idea of the multiverse, including “string theory,” setting up with science the plausibility of the djinn dwelling in a parallel plane to ours, which allows them to interact with us without being seen.

During my own research of the paranormal/supernatural, theology, and mythology over the past twelve years, I have come to see quantum physics as the nexus between Science and the Unseen, and this lead chapter lent a certain credibility to the explorations to follow, above and beyond what I already knew about the solid reputations of the authors.

This faith in Guiley and Imbrogno’s credentials and commitment to serious scholarship as opposed to the rampant hucksterism infamously attached to their fields of expertise is invaluable to a balanced and enjoyable experience with The Vengeful Djinn because, recalling the infallible insight of Socrates, when it comes to the Unseen, Paranormal, and Supernatural, we truly do know nothing. That is, after all, the whole point. From John Keel to the many disciples, imitators, and exploiters who have come after, there is a great deal of necessary interpretation and trying on of different theories in order to make some semblance of what is just beyond our senses.

Like any work of solid scholarship should, The Vengeful Djinn operates on a number of levels. First and foremost (and most appealing to the widest audience), it is a thorough and enlightening explication of the djinn, using primarily the Quran as well as other sources to historicize, categorize, and analyze their creation, hierarchy, motivations, and tactics. If it were nothing else, this book would be an excellent contribution to the literature of the Mythical and Mystical. The sections on their relationship with Solomon, their commonalities with angels and demons (and faeries and leprechauns!), and their various classifications and range of powers make for fascinating reading, as does the authors’ prescriptions for dealing with them.

But The Vengeful Djinn then goes a step further, out to where some would say the buses cease to run, as the authors apply the fundamental traits and habits of the djinn to a wide variety of areas of the Unexplained. This is dangerous territory, leaving the authors open to sharp criticism. But the scientific methodology and field experience they bring to the table work as a sort of talisman for Guiley and Imbrogno. Their anecdotes from around the world, with at times high-level politicians and military personnel, lend a helpful legitimacy to theories that would otherwise try to cling to steep, slick, and slippery slopes. Their well-known work in identifying and testing portals to other dimensions and planes using a variety of high-tech instrumentation (some of which I have also used) is invaluable in staying with their at times tenuous lines of theory.

Toward the end, the authors delve into the world of Shadow People and the less-than-peaceful agenda of the djinn and their continued manipulations of the human race. Perhaps my own fascination with the Mythological and Mystical and the nature of the Unseen Beings that seem without a doubt (and equally without a solid classification…) to be operating in and amongst us, if we but take the time to pay them some attention, precludes me from commenting too strongly in favor of the value of this exercise in exploration, but I will say that whether you read this book as scholarship, case book, or entertainment, or preferably some combination of all three, Guiley and Imbrogno’s The Vengeful Djinn is well-written, expertly organized, and well worth your time.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

“Ways and Waves and Weaving”: A Review of Patricia Damery’s Snakes, a novel

Fisher King Press, March 2011, ISBN: 978-1-926715-13-1, fisherkingpress.com

Snakes, a novel is the second book by Jungian analyst Patricia Damery. Her first, Farming Soul: A Tale of Initiation (2010), shares as its prima materia her Midwest background and the demise of the family farm, an action of modern life that scars the soul as well as the land.

Two things strike me as notable about Snakes: First, it is written as an open letter to the narrator’s recently deceased father, but in such a subtle way that we as readers do not feel like eavesdroppers but invited listeners. Second, the book employs numerous metaphors (the farm, the sea, weaving, and, of course, snakes), which often marks the work of the amateur who cannot make decisions, leading to an incoherent book with no thru-line.

Nothing here could be further from the truth.

Perhaps it is the skill required by the high craft of weaving that allows Damery to write multi-metaphorically, or the sheer simplicity of her storytelling. The straightforward language and structure can support the artistry of numerous images, which interlock and reinforce each other in a way I’ve not often seen.

Another strength of Snakes is the fallibility and flaws of almost every character, from the narrator’s two young sons, to her husband, to her teachers, her mother, and most clearly, to her. Bad advice, close-minded opinions, misunderstandings, and selfishness seed the book’s numerous fields, and I found myself agreeing with one character in one moment and siding with another in the next. The people who populate the book are not heroic or even necessarily “literary,” but neither are they mundane or boring. They simply are, and like the access the simplicity of the language allows, I could identify with them all. This is harder to do well than a non-writer might at first imagine.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Snakes was the ending, because I completely disagreed with the narrator’s ultimate choice and yet it made perfect, if less than ideal, sense. It could have gone other ways—the many metaphors would have supported several—and yet, for her, it was the only one, and worthy of our respect.

So what is Snakes about? It is about the Risks we take, both major and minor, that coalesce over time to define our lives. It is about the Fear of the little things and Fear of the big things, and at the end of the day, the month, the season, and our lives, finding out that it was a shorter distance to Love than we thought. It’s about Mistakes and Regrets, and how necessary they both are to a life well and fully lived. It’s about the Earth and the Sea; the Individual and the Familial; Respect and Trust; Youth and Age. But most of all, Snakes is about finding one’s place in the Universe and how that journey is formed.

In a time when the ultimate usefulness and fate of the novel seem to be endlessly in question, a book like Snakes, with its great simplicity and subtle complexities, demonstrates what all of us who champion this literary form—writers, editors, publishers, readers, reviewers—feel in those deepest places of Knowing:

Although the journey must be taken alone, the stories of those who have gone before or who might be on parallel paths are an invaluable source of Peace and Inner Strength.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Silk Egg:Collected Novels (2009–2009), Eileen R. Tabios

(Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-84861-143-6)

Eileen Tabios is an innovator in the best sense of the word.

If her impressive list of publications, multi-media projects, and awards were not proof enough, one need only consider her development and promotion of the Hay(na)ku form, which has spawned three anthologies and several works from individual writers. If even that is not enough, one would be hard pressed to discount her place at the forefront of the post-postmodern language and literature movement after reading (and engaging with) Silk Egg.

Having read many and reviewed several of Tabios’ works, I have been most impressed and enthused by the requirements made on the reader (or reviewer) to partner in the product being created. This, to me, is what keeps the very short “novels” (and their even shorter chapters) from being just another experiment in what is alternately called, among other names, “Nano-fiction,” “microfiction,” and “flash fiction…”

This growing movement of short work has its roots in a famous Hemingway story, the entirety of which is: For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Richard Brautigan (whose novel, The Hawkline Monster, according to my background research for this review, was the catalyst for the Hay(na)ku form) also worked in the ultra-short form, and now, in the age of 45-character Tweets, brief Facebook updates, and some literary agents requesting synopses of entire novels in 100 words or less, it is a tool most writers have in their toolkit.

These are different, digital days, and all but gone are 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.

At the nexus of that Here and this Now is Silk Egg, a place where you don’t swim in the words as in days of old, but the spaces in between.

This collection of micro-novels ends with the one with which the project began—Novel Chatelaine. This set of short chains on a belt used for carrying keys, a thimble, a sewing kit, and so on is a metaphorical image Tabios has used before. The more I read, the more I am convinced that we, the Readers, are the locks into which the various and sundry keys are meant to enter.

Another recurring source of inspiration for Tabios is Jorge Luis Borges’s “Library of Babel” (which also inspired Umberto Ecco’s Name of the Rose), a geometric wonder of a library wherein is contained all the possible combinations of words for every book ever written, or yet to be. Picturing this wondrous place one cannot help but to also imagine the weathered librarians, hunch-backed monks, rebellious demons, be-spectacled book collectors, and half-mad writers searching for new inspirations in its leaf-laden passages…

It is here, in this chamber, this mansion of the mind, that one best sits while reading Silk Egg, peering through the windows of hotels and apartments, restaurants and lighthouses, vineyards and wine cellars in places ‘round the world, with their self-isolated population of affluent and emotionally detached men and women reaching across chasms of hurt and apathy to try and connect with one another. Their places of cold confrontation and passive habitation are dressed in silk and pewter, rose and diamond, jade and moss, snakeskin and ruby, linen and leather, tulip and truffle, and opium and orchid.

They try and fail, and try again, their short-armed gestures and hollow words falling between the spaces, back into the library, where they reconstitute in new forms and better possibilities as we grab and grasp and turn them to our use.

Those who bemoan the death of the book and of good writing itself need only keep up with Tabios’ growing collection of innovative and deeply engaging books to know that this is far from the case.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Review of The Creative Soul, by Lawrence H. Staples, Ph.D.

(2009, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com, ISBN 978-0-9810344-4-7)
Reviewed by Joey Madia

Eighteen months ago, I reviewed Dr. Staples’s Guilt with a Twist, a book with which I had some reservations. In the case of The Creative Soul (subtitled “Art and the Quest for Wholeness”), a relatively short book (91 pages including the Index), he has expanded on my favorite section of Guilt, dealing with the process of creativity as it applies to mental health and the integration of the Shadow, a core idea in the work and writings of Carl Jung (Staples is a Jungian analyst who trained in Switzerland after making a mid-life career-switch at the age of 50). 

Inherent in the process of integrating one’s Shadow is the first step of acknowledging that it exists and exploring the push and pull of opposites at play within us all. It is this dynamic tension between good and evil, light and dark, loyalty to other and loyalty to self that feeds and fuels our creative impulses. For those whose denial of the Shadow is so deep as to cause a psychic wound, the creative act can also be the healing act.

The Creative Soul employs a successful mix of scholarship, anecdote, and writings created by Dr. Staples patients (a formula he also uses in Guilt).

At the start of it all is the alchemical process—the manipulation of the prima materia, the first spark, the subconsciously implanted seed. In line with St. Thomas, if you bring what’s in you forth, it will save you; if you do not, it will kill you—or at the very least, it will result in the endless depression and suicidal thoughts that bring many people to therapy in the first place.

Any time you are talking about opposites, you must also talk about balance, and Dr. Staples spends a good deal of time sharing anecdotes about the button-down type whose true passion is painting, on the one hand, and the artist with no sense of stability at all. Both lifestyles are unsustainable and ultimately lead to similar ends. It is “the contrast between the opposites, not merely one of the individual opposites itself, that produce(s) the consciousness of the good feeling” (p. 39).

One technique discussed in the book is the use of dream material to fuel our creative endeavors. Dr. Staples mentions Mel Matthews, whose trilogy about the character Malcolm Clay I reviewed five years ago (also from Fisher King Press) and another book I have reviewed that readers might find of interest is Jon Lipsky’s Dreaming Together: Explore Your Dreams by Acting Them Out (Larson Publications).

Another area of interest is the cyclical nature of the creative process, and its different phases—for writers, there is the brainstorming and writing (the free creative act) and the editing and revision process (the technical work). Mix these up, and you get “writer’s block.” The pure creative act and the technical work are another set of opposites that are each severely limited in isolation.

Other areas covered in The Creative Soul are Art as Therapy and the true risk we take as artists when we put the deepest, darkest pieces of ourselves out into the world for criticism.

This book is highly recommended for anyone who works in the creative arts, especially teachers and therapists seeking to better express to students and analysands the joys and challenges of the creative process and the great value for healing, expression, and communication it has in our lives.