Books Received & Acknowledged

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Leslie Neustadt, Bearing Fruit, Spirit Wind Press.

I hesitate to use the overworked term, “Brave”, but this is truly one of those books that merits it. Leslie’s poems are visceral, getting deep into the heart of the most personal subjects imaginable: childhood sexual abuse, rape, abortion, and a rare form of incurable cancer.  While these poems are intensely personal, they are never maudlin, self-pitying or self righteous.  She is always clear sighted, forceful and honest and yes, brave, and forward looking.  A recent Facebook picture shows her with a newborn grandchild cradling the future. Her poems lead us to look forward also while not ignoring the past.  It is a truly exceptional journey and we should all take it. 
Of special note: The entire purchase price of each book goes to non-profit organizations supporting cancer research, patient health, the prevention of child abuse and expressive arts. I bought a copy and you should as well.

Meredith Stricker, Mistake, Caketrain.

If language is evolution than we are constantly evolving as we write and speak. Sometimes mistakes are made. Sometimes the glitter in the distance is an irradiated sea. Maybe evolution is a mistake. Only language can account for that. Or not, as language is elusive. Allusive. These could be language mistakes. Or not. Freud interpreted mistakes. And was often mistaken. We are still recovering. Or not.  Somewhere on the evolutionary scale is music. This could be a deliberate mistake. Deliberate or not, you can hear the difference. Or not. As Burroughs said, “language is a virus from outer space.” As Laurie Anderson said, “Paradise is just like where you are now only much, much better.” This place too is evolving. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean.

Of note: Do not be put off by the deliberately difficult structure of the book. This is cautionary tale and an important one. Sometimes what is worthwhile requires work.  

Simone Muench, Trace, Black Lawrence Books. 

This is a book where the old truism applies: You can tell a book by its cover.  What you see is a forearm wrapped in some kind of elaborate contraption that appears to be drawing blood from the arm and funneling it to a stylus which is leaving a long red line in a white, snow covered landscape.  Okay.  Not your usual image, right? And once you crack the pages you see why it is totally appropriate.  Each startling poem is constructed from lines and fragments from a two page list of writers. The concept alone is mind boggling but making it works is monumental and boy, does she ever. I guarantee you won’t see another book like this one. Anywhere. Ever.

Wolfgang Carstens, Factory Reject. epic rites.

The sad sack, stick figure on the cover, a white mostly line drawing on black background suggests the persona of these poems. Carstens is a regular guy with five kids who writes uncomplicated, clean lines, of conversational narrative poetry. Corporations suck, bosses are all a clueless waste of space but we have to indulge them to get from point a to point b in our lives. Point b is often a bar where we bitch about point a. I’ve been there and done that. I can think of a whole lot of dull people with credentials about the ying yang and enough diplomas to stuff one of Norman Bates’s pet owls who I wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with, Carstens is a guy you wouldn’t mind having a couple of beers with.

Ruth Moon Kempher, Key West Papers, Cinco Hermanas.

This brief, engaging little chapbook, is about all things Key West, the way it used to be and the way it is now.  Perhaps, the most interesting piece is the long prose essay detailing a fist fight between notorious boozer and brawler, Ernest Hemingway, and the normally-thought-of-as-sedate Insurance man poet, Wallace Stevens.  Left to his own devices, Stevens was a notorious boozer and on annual fishing vacations he overindulged his passion for hooch and managed to piss off the easily annoyed Hemingway.  Apparently Hem defended his honor and knocked Mr. Stevens down a flight of stairs, declaring himself the vanquishing hero of the day. As I had not heard of this little known encounter I was thoroughly amused by the image of Stevens with his hands raised challenging Hemingway to a fight.  Good grief.  One would be hard pressed to fit this image with the man who wrote “The Idea of Order in Key West” but it fun trying to do it.  The straightforward, wry, relation of the story and the participants are amusingly portrayed with tongue firmly in cheek and with appropriate footnotes.

John Goode, Graduating from Eternity, Rain Mountain Press.

Generally speaking, Goode’s poems are a garrulous mixture of adjectives thrown together in the hopes that an arresting image will capture the reader’s attention. Sometimes they do, often they do not. When they don’t, the poems just feel cluttered, when they do, as in the “Autopsy of Garcia Lorca”, they inspire admiration and a real sense of appreciative awe. The Garcia Lorca poem will be on my short list of most admired poems of the year.

Michele Battiste, Uprising, Black Lawrence. 

A number of years ago I attended a discussion given by Ed Sanders that centered around Investigative Poetry.  I believe the talk was ostensibly about the release of his updated version of his Manson book, The Family, but inevitably the discussion came around to the role of the poet as historian.  Ed’s friend Allen Ginsberg encouraged writers to keep copious notes, journals, diaries etc., and to collect relevant topical articles of the life and times the author was living in. It wasn’t enough that the artist collect this material but that he should organize it in such a manner that it would be retrievable and useable at the proper time, when the author set about transcribing his notes into a book.  Sanders noted that each generation writes its own history so, why can’t that history be written by poets?  Hence his three volume set of America: A History from Black Sparrow with a special volume, “1968”, centering around the Chicago Convention where Sanders and, his satirical rock group, The Fugs,  were prime movers and shakers in the infamous protest. These books should be required reading for anyone interested in the actual grassroots history of the Time.

In this spirit, Battiste has written a personal history of the times, preceding and leading up to, the Hungary Revolution of 1956, that was brutally suppressed by the Russians. Michele’s mother was born in Hungary in 1944 and her reminiscences provide an effective oral history of what it was like to grow up in a Post War behind-the Iron-Curtain country. Children were encouraged to spy on their parents, neighbors and playmates.  Food was scarce to non-existent, work hard to find or impossible, people disappeared and were never heard of again without explanation.  Eventually, a popular revolution was fomented among the common people, encouraged by the West, who promised aid when the time came, but reneged when the aid was needed most.  The result of this broken promise was oppression even harsher than what existed before. Eventually Michele’s mother and family were able to escape to America. Coincidentally, her mom and dad came to own a local deli around the corner from where I used to live in Schenectady and frequented on a regular basis.  A small world indeed.

This is an essential book and, dare I say it, Important, both on  a personal, and a historical level.   Given the copious notes and sources cited, this book must have taken years to write.  Battiste has the rare gift of a scholar’s sense of history and research capabilities plus the essential poetic gift of  depicting people and places.

T.K. Splake, The Poet’s Room, Shoe Music Press. 

It seems as if it has been a long time since the last Splake book, maybe all of a few months. The always prolific Splake, fighting against “rat bastard time”, is intent on making up for lost time spent in unrewarding marriages and career pursuits. Terminally stifled, he chucked it all, took an early retirement, and retreated into the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to take photographs and write.  In fact, that summation would be a fair approximation of the main themes of The Poet’s Room for, as the following poem, quoted in full suggests, tomorrow is close than we may think,


sharp click of alcohol
warming brain-skull
frantic scribbling
black letters  white pages
raw direct truthful
sky is near
black hole waiting                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
If you go to the Shoe Music web-site you can see the poet reading from the book in his writer’s retreat/studio and I strongly advise you to do so. 

John Gosslee, Blitzkrieg, Rain Mountain Press. 

This would be one of those books you would give an A for effort.  The poet composes some fourteen brief pieces as a kind of surreal sequence. Following these pieces, presented in a conventional format, is one poem he calls “Portrait of an Inner Life” consisting of eight short lines,  in four parts, two lines each.  What follows can be accurately said to give new meaning to the phrase, “Getting Your Work Out There.” 

In a cross country odyssey, Mr. Gosslee, fills over a hundred corked bottles with copies of the poem sealed inside, which he deposits randomly in bodies of water, mostly rivers, going to and coming back from his poetry road trip. In addition, he has  a fist full of stickers he places in public places ranging from urinals to gas pumps and to well, just about anything that you can put a sticker on complete with pictures of the poems in public places.  There is also a section of explication of the genesis of the poem and explanations and reactions to it by editors and readers told in an amusing tone.  As if the photos were not enough, there are two separate artistic responses to the poem, line drawings and what appears to be paintings responding directly to the images  in the poem.  Given all the attention he lavishes on the poem, you honestly wish it were a better piece than he thinks it is. 

Shira Dentz, door of thin skins, CavanKerry. 

This is a difficult poem, and it really is a long poem in fragments, to describe, for many reasons: all of them deliberate choices by the author.  Dentz is chronicling the worst kind of abusive relationship between a manipulative therapists and a patient. The male therapist is shown as a family man, of obvious wealth and influence, who is manipulating a vulnerable, female patient into inappropriate relationships that seem deliberately designed to allow him to take advantage of her physically. The fragmentary, non-linear nature of her approach is, at first, difficult to absorb, but as the relationships develop, the reader learns that it is typical for patients to discover some seven years after ending therapy with an analyst, that they have been abused (well past the statue of limitations to file charges). Despite the odds against success, she persists in instigating an investigation against the man, known as Dr. Sam, who systematically abused her and then abandoned their professional relationship.  The more the reader learns, the more heinous the crimes seem. This is a difficult book to absorb in one reading but well worth the effort.

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

If I were forced to sum up this fascinating trip through the ugly history of man’s basic inhumanity, I would borrow a line from Leonard Cohen, “I have seen the future and it is murder.” Ranging from the French Revolution, the horrific slaughter of the Tutsi’s, the psychotic reign of the Nazis and their cult of death, Herrle continually flash forwards to the most heinous of all mass murders: Charlie Manson and his whole sick crew of death angels, before focusing on their reign of terror in South of California.  The facts speak for themselves, and are well known, what Herrle does is provide context and meaningful discourse, that underscores what happens when we allow ourselves to be swept away by forces of history that assume control over our lives.  His writing is masterful, unique, and forceful, even playful at times, despite the bleak subjects he portrays.  Sharon Tate should be read as a cautionary tale: a cult of evil may be seductive by presenting a message of sexual liberation and freedom but is, in reality, just an excuse to manipulate minds and enact the worst kind of terrible crimes.  There is nothing to admire in what happens here (except the author’s skill in presenting it), and as Ed Sanders once said about his interactions with Manson, including revealing a plot to spring him from LA County jail to the authorities (and I paraphrase): “what it comes down to is I was raised in a Christian household and one thing I was taught the ten commandments, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. I still believe that.” 

Paul Pines, Fishing on the Pole Star, Dos Madres. 

To say this is a book about fishing is to say that The Old Man in the Sea was a guide to netting the big one. Yes, there is fishing in both books (though in Pines most are caught and released) but the purpose is, as with Hemingway, more metaphorical than descriptive. In clear, tight lines, Pines tells of a trip on a fishing boat off the coast of the Bahamas.  His conversations with the aging skipper are both wry and astute, the descriptions of  the daily activities, lucid and intense, and thoughts about the meaning of all of life’s epic journey’s, cryptic and spot on, infused with a Buddha calm.  The sparseness of the writing reminded me of Far Tortuga in the Atlantic, a vastly different canvas and intent, but hones down as close as possible to the bones.  Of special note are the accompanying, often surreal, colorful collage illustrations, ending with a  reproduction form Klee, “Fish Magic” which could be seen as a visual stimulus; a culmination for what preceded it.

Cathy Porter, Dust and Angels, Finishing Line Press. 

This brief but intense chapbook, deals primarily with the poet’s often fraught relationship with her parents. Despite extreme difficulties, the essential feeling is the poet’s deep love and understanding for imperfect people who just happen to be her forbearers.  No matter how deep the wounds may have been, the blood connection, her all abiding love, is the deepest connection of all.

University Press Books

Lamar University Press:  Jerry Bradley, Crownfeathers and Effigies
Janet McCann The Crone and the Casino

Bradley’s book is a wide ranging collection of poems that deal equally well with the  personal and the sublime, the literate and the mundane. He is equally comfortable with a long lyric as he with a short ditty such as (quoted in full) ‘Next time”,

“I still miss my ex husband,” she said.

“Next time,” I said, “aim for the torso.”      

There is nothing academic about these poems, one of the titles is “Belling the Vampire” after all, with several poems of deep feeling and understanding such as “Chemo Ward at Texas Children’s Hospital”, showing the full range of his abilities and concerns.

Janet McCann is a poet of deceptive simplicity who continually manages to surprise the reader with deft observations and conclusions. As a reader and a writer, I am terminally suspicious of poems about animals, any and all, for the simple reason that, as with writing about love, the temptation is to slip into sentimentality from which there is no escape. Having once vowed to: Absolutely Never to write an animal poem, I wrote a whole collection (unpublished) of animal poems, though, admittedly, they were for metaphorical purposes (i.e., “Guide Dog with Lead Harnesses Consider the Logistics of Trench Warfare”).  Throughout Crone and Casino, McCann uses cats to express points in ways that could only be described as ingenious.  This is a book of wry observations and subtle points and more cats, used in more unique ways, than in any book of poetry I have read in recent years. 

Anna Journey, Vulgar Remedies, LSU Press.

What can I say about Anna Journey?  Well, if you haven’t read her and you like modern poetry with a kick ass attitude, dynamite images, relentless pacing and just damn fine poems, you should read her now. Immediately.  This is her second collection and it sparkles, is electric, glows in the damn dark. What are you waiting for? Order it now.

Lyn Lifshin, Secretariat; The Red Freak, The Miracle, Texas Review Press.

I’m not sure what the point of this book is. If you really wanted to be exposed to a capsule life of the racehorse, see the saccharine Disney movie. I’m sure Lyn did, as watching movies is Lyn’s thing. I heard that direct from the horse’s mouth as she once told me that in the advent of VHS rentals, she saw every movie that Price Chopper had to rent. Apparently, she would put on movies and type up her drafts up to nine hours a day or until she ran out of movies, whichever came first.  Think about that.  

I am assured, by people who love and write about horses, that the people in the horse trade, racing and breeding, who actually read, are no more fond of poetry than any other class of readers. Probably less so. Secretariat is the third race horse book written by Lifshin and published by Texas Review Press.  The first, The Licorice Daughter, is subtitled, significantly, My Year with Ruffian. I say significantly, as the book gradually veers away from poems about    the horse, to how the horse impacted the author. One gets the impression, besides an obsession with horses, Ruffian appealed to the poet because she was a filly and not expected to win anything.  As Lyn is what you could call, a half-assed feminist, she feels for the empowerment of women, even if the woman is a horse in a  male dominated field, but remains totally sex obsessed, if only in her imagination, by men. 

The second book, is Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness. Somewhere, well before half way through the book, she drops all pretenses of writing about the doomed horse who had to be put down after a tragic broken leg, but is all about how she felt about it.  In essence, the book is all about me, which is ultimately what all Lifshin books are about. 

The third, Secretariat: The Red Freak, The Miracle, thankfully avoids the narcissist track for the most part, and actually seems to be a straight up biography of the horse that would fit well on a YA shelf.  Remember those books for kids: You Were There:  (at the Alamo…At Gettysburg…fill in the blank) well this book feels just like that. We get, early on, that Secretariat is an unusual large, frisky and had a sense of humor. We also learn he has “super human” (super equine?) powers on the race course, enabling him to win major stakes race by unheard of distances because of his power to, “shift into another gear.” Later in life, we learn that Secretariat was like a friend, with four legs, to all of the grooms and trainers along shed row and would be mourned as such. These points stick with the reader as she is compelled to reinforce them multiple times in case you missed it the first two or three times through. Other than feeling written down to, there is nothing truly bad about this book: it’s actually edited, and has no groaners in it nor any particularly good ones either. Thankfully, the book is available as a ridiculously cheap Kindle book which is suited to her style of short lines and run on style of writing.

There is also another horsey book, a chapbook, Lost in the Fog, which must have appealed to the poet for its allusive name as there is nothing much else memorable about the book except for, perhaps the fine art cover from Finishing Line Press.  What next Man of WarSeabiscuit? Pegasus? How about this year’s Antipathy, this year’s possible sensation. I can even supply a title: Antipathy: a horse and a book that is easy to hate.

One book was really enough. Two was plenty, three was pushing it. Four, well enough already.   For better or for worse, Lyn has based a career on pushing it and, I hesitate to say this, but can’t resist, beating a dead horse.

Artwork by Gene McCormick