Books Received & Acknowledged

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Cover of Books of the Dead by Alan CatlinFirst a shameful piece of self-promotion. My long awaited (by me anyway) some twenty-five years in the making memoir with poetry, Books of the Dead has arrived. Copies are available from me for $15 post paid at Alan Catlin, 143 Furman Street, Schenectady, N.Y, 12304.

 Books of the Dead combines prose narration and poems revolving around the life and the deaths of my divorced parents. The first section is The New York City Book of the Dead which centers around Room 641 of the Martha Washington Hotel for Women in Midtown Manhattan, where the refuse of her life collected during seven long years of schizophrenic isolation.  Beginning on the worst day of my life, entering that room and searching through the often knee high piles of junk for vital papers,  the book moves backwards in time, showing our relationship and the various stages of her madness coming full circle back to where we begin, at the end.  The second section is “The Central Florida Book of the Dead” deals with the sudden death of my father and the lingering terminal illness of my step-mother and the dreaded phrase, “according to Florida Law.” This section is a kind of a breathless blur, reflecting a five month odyssey that had us commuting from New York to Florida to deal with estate matters, matters that became so complicated, there was not time for grieving. This is a handsome trade sized paperback of nearly 220 pages and unlike any memoir you have ever read.

The Lowdown, 2014, 220 pages, 8-1/2 by 11 size, full color.   Check payable to Robert M. Zoschke, $36.00 includes shipping.  Box 38, Ellison Bay, WI 54210.

As a contributor to the Lowdown I can’t, in good conscience, review the magazine. What  I can say is that if you were only going to buy one small press publication this year, this should be the one you buy.  Where else can you get a coffee table sized book with a color, original painting by Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the cover? In addition to a generous selection of paintings and Collage poem art by Norbert Blei among others, an extensive  photo essay on the many faces of Chicago  and enough terrific poetry to satisfy any lover of the form.  Yes, the book is expensive but, in this case, you get what you pay for.  There has never been another book like this one ever in the small press scene, well, not since Lowdown 1, also featuring a fine cover art painting by Ferlinghetti, terrific art and more good poetry than two smaller magazines.


In the Night Count the Stars: an uncommon anthology, Bittersweet Editions.

Uncommon it is and uncommonly good. There is a diverse mixture of graphics, stunning original photographs of people, places, and things (from the Balkans to the police homicide files of LA) There is also a sequence of graphics, drawings and a good deal of heavy duty fiction and narrative poetry.  In general, the fiction is stark and double down gritty but always compelling.  One piece was equally arresting and annoying,  an excerpt from Jillian Schiari’s, “Her Name Anymore” bunching together short paragraphs on the tops and bottoms of pages with vast amounts of white space in between. The purpose of this effect is lost on me but the story was still affecting.

More traditional stories told in a strong narrative voice were “Decadence” by Jennifer Peckinpaugh and chief editor, Marco North’s, “The Golden Macaroni.”  A story told in letters, “Sympathy in Heart,” reminded me of “Post Cards” by Annie Proulx. Probably the most compelling was a court worker’s narrative, “Deliberation” by Barbara Bellinger, about her experience reading verdicts to the court room.  The immediacy of her predicament, this is my job, it’s really just a job, but the situations  are all life altering, often permanent, and the ultimate toll it takes on  the author is cumulative and personal. It was not unlike Werner Herzog’s documentary about the death penalty, “Into the Abyss” filmed in Texas where he interviews a guard in the death room area who worked with the about-to- be-executed for well over a decade until Carla Faye Tucker was executed.  The guard realized he could no longer separate the duties of his job with the meaning of what happened to those he ministered to and became a staunch opponent to the death penalty and suffered for it when it came time to retire.  In my own brief encounters with murder trials, having been called twice but never selected, listened to evidence for over a week and watched the mother of one of the victims, who saw her son shot on her front porch in front of her, her husband and twenty odd people getting off a bus over a twenty dollar drug deal, gives me some idea to the ordeal of witnessing dozens, if not hundreds of these kinds of cases.  Seeing that once was unforgettable, seeing it as a matter of course, I can’t imagine. A generous selection of strong narrative poems by Tony Gloeggler rounds out this excellent anthology.

Generally speaking I wouldn’t use a college campus reading as a point of reference for a review but it seems appropriate in this case as both poets read from recent and brand new books.  The readers were January Gill O’Neil and Sean Thomas Dougherty, two poets who, on the surface, couldn’t be more different. Dougherty is rough edged poet of the streets, he is more comfortable working in a pool hall than in the halls of academia and is noted for his dynamic performances of his poetry in venues all over the world while O’Neil is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry festival with a strong academic background whose poetmom blog is read by thousands on a regular basis. 

First up, January mostly read from her Cavan Kerry Book, Underlife, a highly personal book about her coming of age, racial prejudice and the dissolution of her biracial marriage and what it means to her and their two children.  While confessing to basically being shy, she is a commanding presence on stage, highly personable and well spoken off and on the stage, and is a poet with a bright future.

Sean read mostly from his latest book a selected poems, All You Asked For is Longing, literally hot off the presses the night of the reading. He confessed to scraping his intended reading after hearing January’s pieces about racial discrimination and chose several pieces that clearly spoke directly to the same issue.  Sean considers his black step-father, who married his mother when he was two, his father, and his love for him is clearly expressed in his poetry especially the longer poems, ”Ode to My Father” and  “Nine Innings to Go.” As usual, his performance was  rab-you- by-the-seat- of-the-pants dynamic.  If there is one word to describe Sean on stage, or, his poetry in general, it is intense.  Afterwards he mentioned that he thought he was losing the audience  and I suggested maybe he should interject something funny in between deeply serious pieces and he replied, that he had only written two funny pieces in his life. Not that it mattered. He wasn’t losing his audience, they were just struggling for air, awaiting the next line. 

I have not completed a reading of the Selected and New from Boa Editions yet but I will shortly. I have, however, read his Sasha Sings the Laundry to the Line also from Boa and  Scything Grace from Etruscan.

I think it would be fair to say that wherever Sean goes, whether it be to the Balkans on a grant, Erie PA to play pool, or Albany NY to read at St. Rose College and to play pool afterward with January, he makes the place he is at his own.  What makes his poems so immediate is his visceral involvement in place, his personalizing the objects, the people he meets, the situations they find themselves, in and makes them wholly alive on the page and in your head. His poems are rich in exacting detail, pulsating with real life, often down and out and frantically trying to escape a bad deal going bad and destined to get worse. There is longing and living, tenderness and blood, all of it unmistakably human and real. And if you have never seen Sean perform, you must.

Norman Stock, Pickled Dream Naked, NYQ Books.

Mr. Stock impresses me as an older man, nearing 80, who has no intention of going gentle into this good night.  While some of these poems are older, I think to would be unfair to assume that he is not above appreciating the disappearing view of a young woman as she walks down the street nor of telling a rude joke in public.  I can’t say that I was overwhelmed by the men-who-walk-into-the-whatever poems but hey that’s me.  I’ve been in the bar they walk into and most of the time what happens after they walk in isn’t funny or the joke will be on me.  Of course, there was the time a young editor walked into the bar and says, “Do you wanted to do a Collected poems?” but that’s another story.  While Stock’s style appears to be breezy and nonchalant there is a real poetic voice at work one who is writes consistently, readily accessible, quality poems including his intriguingly titled, “Buying Breakfast for My Kamikaze Pilot” winner of the Peregrine Smith Prize in 1993 (The Kamikaze Pilot being a woman he is in a highly contentious, night after the tryst relationship with) for many years.  Stock is cantankerous and doesn’t care who knows it. He is also a fine poet and should be read by people who appreciate a clear narrative line.

Tim Suermondt, The Art of Waving, Cervana Barva Press. 

The full color art work on the cover of this chapbook of a kind of Day of the Dead, “Skull in a Landscape,” belies a generous, spirited, wryly humorous poetic voice.  There are few poets working today who you can read with a knowing smile of appreciation for the slightly outrageous,  always lively voice, of a man who knows all about “Two Left Feet for Dancing”, winning the Nobel Prize (not), “Two Cheeks for the Thong” and  “The Tiny , Unnamed Moon Discovered Circling Pluto”.  While he may never win the Big Prize, we should read him while he is still here and appreciate the gifts he modestly proclaims.

Dessa, A Pound of Steam, Rain Taxi.

This is a modest chapbook in appearance: gray on black, but inside is an outrageous voice of wildly imaginative gifts.  I expect these highly outrageous, deep image poems, make for a great live reading performance. Reading them in relative silence of home, was like drifting off to sleep on a surrealistic pillow and absorbing the language of dreams in a multi-colored, vibrantly alive, multi-dimensional poetic subspace in the mind.  And what a truly poetic dream world it is!

Linda King, Dream Street Details, Shoe Music Press.  

King, like Dessa, is a poet whose poetic boundaries of time and space are fluid.  Language is always in the process of changing, metamorphosing into something unspeakable and then becoming something new that is almost tangible but never quite wholly real.  If language is artifice, then nothing is totally real in a world where everything described can become something else.  It is not a comfortable place to be but sure is energizing and challenging; there is always something new being born out of the  ordinary and that is what poetry is all about.   

Linda Lerner, Ding Dong the Bell Pussy in the Well, Drawings by Donna Kerness, Lummox Press. 

You don’t have to read Bruno Bettelheim’s,  The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales to appreciate what Lerner is all about in these poems.  Fairy tales and folk tales are often rooted in dark historical places like the Black Plague that was the scourge of Europe during the Middle Ages. Others derive from old wives tales transformed into received fact and made more palatable by simple rhymes.  Shakespeare used songs and ditties of this sort, his lyrics quoted, even in the less serious plays, are always of a deep significance, as Lerner clearly knows and shows with this intriguing chapbook of poems based on some of these tales.  Her purpose is to flesh out some of the darker aspects of chosen stories and make them immediate and significant in ways that can haunt the reader the way the original incidents must have done when they originated.  She avoids the deeply disturbing, often fraught kind of writing that made Poe’s tales, often based on a the same kind of received fact, memorable. Though in Poe’s case, the lasting effect is more because of their excessive use of detail and overwrought emotion, than their pure content. Lerner knows her subject and has the craft to present it to us in an uncommon way.  The richly evocative illustrations by artist Kerness re-enforce the word images. 

Susana H Case, 4 Rooms w Vu, Mayapple Press.

The unusual title of Case’s book refers to a classified ad speak for an apartment. The four rooms  she inhabits in this highly energetic book are 1-Bedroom for the Second Husband 2-Family Room-for the Children and the Parents 3-Storage Rooms- for the First Husband, the Lovers and 4-Dying Room-For the Gone, the Diminished.  There is no way these rooms could be confused with anything from E. M. Forster as Case  is anything but straight laced, reticent or inhibited.  Her rooms, each a House of Memory, depict a rebellious youth more comfortable  with fast cars, unacceptable men, and high speed, substance abusing scenes from Bullitt, ultimately ending in car crashes rather than drawing rooms and civilized conversation.  Despite the deceptively simple use of popular culture references, anyone who read her book, Elvis Presley’s Hips and Mick Jagger’s Lips, knows she is a deft, sly writer, with encyclopedic knowledge of her subject and ingenious ways of incorporating material from songs, movies and lives of the artists into her poems.  She travels the cultural highways from Annette Funicello, to Kurosawa, to James Joyce and everything in between, at a breathtaking  pace. The arresting cover, a photo of a person peering through a partially broken window pane, and seen through a rusted wire mesh of what appears to have been  bed frame, superimposed on another rusted layer of  frame wire, suggests the view beyond the window is something to be seen through a glass darkly.

Robert Cooperman, Just Drive, Brick Road Poetry Press. Cover of Just Drive by Robert Cooperman

I used to have an ongoing discussion with the late Dave Church, cabbie poet of Providence R.I, about how his job impacted and formed his poetry.  Working with the public, basically having no control over who enters your space and hires you to drive them some place and off you go into the unknown as each ride is potentially an adventure.  Driving is like bartending in that respect, solving for X the Unknown. Dave bore a kind of grudge against bartenders for dumping their problems on the street for the poor unsuspecting hacks to deal with, and he would be right about that. I once called a  cabbie for a freaking out customer and asked him how much it cost to get to the Capital District Psychiatric Center about a mile or so across town. He said something like three fifty so I said, “Here’s ten. Take the guy there. You don‘t have to take him to the front door. Just let him out near there. Point him in the right direction. And go. He’s harmless now.”  I never heard what happened; there was nothing in the papers so I gathered it worked out okay.  I could understand how a cabbie would hold a grudge after that. All fares are not created equal.

I once knew a guy who spent ten years getting his PhD in creative writing who gave up teaching at a community college because he could make more money driving cab (a sad commentary on the educational system). I also recall how Frank looked, after two years of hacking, sort of like one of those guys in Ironweed who spent their lives out on the street, getting sober for a few days in order to eat at the charity places where you had to be sober and attend services for your grub.  Actually, Frank was one of those extras in the movie but he looked much worse without makeup after that time driving cab.  And that was in Albany, N.Y.

Bob Cooperman drove cab in New York City. And you literally do get to see it all: gangsters on the way home from an “assignment,” hookers on call, distressed couples on the way to hospital, giving birth or about to witness death, space cadets who have lost their space ships, felons and sweethearts with their lovers.  As with most professions that deal with the public, it is the hard cases, the distressed humans with a problem who aren’t content unless they are making other people miserable, who stand out the most and ruin to for the rest of the folks.  You get people who start talking horrendous, bigoted screeds full of the worst kind of vitriolic hate and they are mystified when you take exception to what they say.  You’re supposed to be both, in agreement and accepting, of their diatribes just because they are paying the fare.  After a while, it is the assumption about you, the driver, the bartender, the waiter, the house maid,  that pisses you off as much as what they say.  Cooperman captures it all in vivid, no nonsense narratives that anyone who has been in a kind of service oriented job, if only for a summer job between semester in college, can relate to.  Even if you haven’t, you should recognize the dynamics of these poems and look yourself in the mirror and ask: do I need to modify my behavior?  The person driving the car is  a human just like you and they are making a living: it isn’t easy and rarely fun.  Who knows, they might be making mental notes or jotting stuff own between fares that will later turn up in poems as Church did.

Laurel Speer, The Poets in Woods Ravaging Blackberries; Selected Poems & Short Prose Pieces 1983-2014, Geryon Press. 

Drawing on a large body of published work collected in chapbooks over the past thirty years, small press veteran laurel Speer shows just why she was known and respected as one of the outstanding voices in the poetic community during that time.  These wry pieces, often suffused with a deep, appropriate, telling irony, show a writer with an eclectic sensibility equally at home writing about literature as she is about current events, popular culture and her personal life.  This excellent retrospective view of  a long, varied, accomplished career is long overdue. Add this one on your shelf next to her contemporary, Joan Colby, who recently released her Selected.

Cover of Joan Colby's Properties of MatterSpeaking of Joan Colby, I recently read the uncorrected proofs of her new work, Properties of Matter.  This is an extraordinary, elemental book in the way that Ted Hughes’s book, “Crow” was, and equally as dense. I rarely use a word like profound to describe a book as it seems pretentious, false and, often misleading but in this case, I feel no hesitation in using it. Rather than attempt any kind of in depth review of a book that requires a close rereading I will reproduce the blurb I wrote for it

Properties of Matter is that rare book that encompasses both the universal and the particular.  Individual poems are metaphysical in tone, often anthropomorphic and elemental in imagery, and become, as the book progresses, a vast, collective exercise in metaphor.  A read need not die, like Audubon and Stubbs's specimens, to understand the true nature of the subject, but, I suggest, one reading will not be sufficient to truly appreciate the breadth and depth of this collection.  

I have on hand several books that I have not been able to devote proper attention to, but plan to in the coming months, including:

David Herrle, Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy, Time Being Books.

Andy Claussen, Home of the Blues: more selected poems, Museum of American Poetics Publications.

Bruce Bond, Choir of the Wells, Etruscan.

Anna Journey, Vulgar Remedies, LSU Press.

And the aforementioned New and Sl3cted by Sean Thomas Dougherty, among others.

One last thing--I have received several invitations to join Linkdin from the Submission site. I can’t join the network from there so please do not send me anymore invitations.  Nothing personal to those I did not reply to and to anyone else I may not reply to in future.