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Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road With Friends (A Freedom Books)

Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road With Friends (A Freedom Books)

Marshall Deerfield’s Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road with Friends is part of a larger project that mixes haiku and haibun to create an ongoing travel narrative over multiple volumes. It comes out of a tradition from writers like Basho, Snyder, and Kerouac, but it has its own environmentalist edge prompted by what we have learned about the destruction of the natural environment and how the American West, which is the focus of this collection, is being transformed by forces like drought, climate change, and the pine bark beetle. However, it is not only a look at the destruction of the west; it is much more a celebration of how life can be lived with a kind of joy on the road. Marshall Deerfield edited the volume, and it is filled with his work and the work of his friends as they engage is these road trips.

            What struck me immediately is how this feels like the volume that might have been written by a side character in Jack Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums. It has that kind of enthusiasm for life and travel. Some of my favorite haiku in this vein are:

            Clouds billow outward

            sifting rain from vapor’d chaff

            cliffs left unexposed (136).

            Volcanic bellies

            water so cold that it stings

            an anomaly (80).

            A lake so blue that

            jumping in feels like falling

            down into the sky (78).

There is a joy here for nature that is infectious. With the haibun, these haiku create a narrative of young people going into the new American West to find what remains to take pleasure in. Much of what we have read in older works that have the same kind of approach is gone. Times have changed and we have lost that world. Deerfield is trying to find what is there now and how to lose himself in these places.

            Deerfield also makes the point of discussing the environmental destruction that continues to plague the American West. As they drive through Texas, he writes, “This is the Gulf of Mexico. To get here, I had to ride through a literal ring of fire made up of oil refineries with their smoke stacks spewing blue, green, and red flames up into the heavens” (18). He also discusses the rise of the pine bark beetle. The beetle is a creature that lives in all pines and has for a very long time. By itself, it is not a problem, but drought, climate change and the overproduction of trees because of bad fire policy has caused the beetle to turn forests into places of tree death. In most western forests currently millions of trees stand dead and brown sprinkled among living trees. Deerfield writes,

As an ecoactivist, I never thought a forest’s demise would come from inside of it. These pine bark beetles are unlike any bulldozer or logging caravan. Chaining yourself to a tree to protect it has no use if the tree is being eaten alive from within (102).

In this, Deerfield expresses the frustration of the environmentalist raised on Edward Abbey but facing the reality that it is not just one person or company harming the natural world. It is a way of life that cannot be easily amended.

            Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road with Friends is a balm for me now in this time when I cannot travel because of the quarantine. It helps me to live through his journeys and it brings me back to my own.

John Brantingham 4th April 2021

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

Karen Jones’s heartbreaking flash fiction collection, When It’s Called Not Making Love, is published by Ad Hoc Fiction which specializes in flash fiction authors and has published writers like Meg Pokrass, Diane Simons, and Jude Higgens. Jones’s collection takes a look at adolescent and young adult sexuality from the point of view of Bernadette, someone who is on the outside because she is considered overweight and just a little different. Jones is a master of point-of-view and draws us into Bernadette’s interior life allowing us to live in the awkward body of someone who wants and needs love but does not know exactly how to engage meaningfully with other people. It is an exceptional collection showing how people are at the same time used and rejected sexually and what that does to the psyche.

The most powerful flash piece for me was the final and titular story. In it, we are given three moments with three young men who have sex with Bernadette from behind, so they do not have to look her in the eye. They brag of the numbers of their sexual conquests, and she tells each they are her first in an attempt to elicit a stronger emotional reaction from them. The problem is in the way that these boys look at her and in how she sees herself as undeserving or incapable of having a fulfilling emotional experience involving sex. It ends with the line, “Maybe someday another boy would like her enough to look her in the eye while he fucked her. Maybe she’d even call it making love” (38). The difference between making love and getting fucked is the key concept of the story and collection. Bernadette does not seem to know how to achieve love, so she settles for what she can get. Of course, this is the key problem for many of us when we are young and are just trying love out. She captures that problem so well, and she had me musing about my own youthful fumblings toward emotion.

Her awkwardness in her own body is her defining characteristic in her world. Early in the collection, she begins a friendship with a girl named Jenny, whom everyone thinks is superior. Her grandmother tells the main character, “‘She’s half the size of you and twice as smart  . . . And so pretty. Why can’t you have silky hair like hers? Why are you such a lump of a girl, Bernadette?’” (3). This is a social condition that we are all aware of, but Jones does an exceptional job of drawing out what it means to be a human being who is seen as an insufficient accessory. This expectation that she is Jenny’s accessory and a bad one at that drives her early sexual encounters where she is often offered sexually to a friend so that Jenny can get the boy or the experience she wants. She is abused and neglected. She is a person capable of exceptional emotional range and she is denied the chance to have those emotions.

When It’s Called Not Making Love captures so well the pain of young people who want a kind of physical perfection and think they will never have it. It also captures the trap of thinking of this world in terms of perfection and imperfection.

John Brantingham 29th March 2021

The Sound Recordist by Seán Street (Maytree Press)

The Sound Recordist by Seán Street (Maytree Press)

The Sound Recordist, Seán Street’s sequence published by Maytree Press, is a distillation of many things he has written previously about sound in his poetry collections and the series of non-fiction books brought out by Palgrave Macmillan and Routledge. In these publications are key words that find their poetic echoes as themes and images in The Sound Recordist – interaction, identity, silence, time, memory, place, preservation, time and the ever-present past.

The theme of echoes, the need for echoes, is a constant in all Seán Street’s work, whether poetry or prose. In ‘Wild Track’ the ‘sound/ of air’ is ‘going on round us.’ It is ‘the moment happening’ in the ‘Perfect acoustic silence’ of a ‘blank empty room filled with/ possibility’. All around is ‘wide transparent space’ and here are layers of sound, the ‘inaudible threads’ (‘Microphone’) where ‘meaning lies between things.’ (‘Notes on Using the Studio’). In this ambience are signals ‘on the edge of things’ which emerge gradually like ‘Notes on dim staves’ (‘Early Show’). All one needs to do is be attentive, wait for triggers of memory and the ‘pauses in silence,’ accept that humans are sonic beings as both transmitters and receivers, and become what Seán Street has described elsewhere as ‘ear-witnesses.’

Several poems in The Sound Recordist emphasise sound as language, the interplay between the sounds of syllables and an imagination that creates a soundscape from the sonic resonances of words to create atmosphere and a sense of place. ‘Reel to Reel’ has the image of ‘language quietly singing to itself,/ the sound of its thought awaiting its second speaking/ … its proper nouns and verbs exact after all this time.’ A striking poem in The Sound Recordist is ‘At the Grodzka Gate’ where time zones touch and interact ‘Through the plain grey prose/of the everyday/that stands side by side/ with the unspeakable, and ‘you hold out a pen/to me, fingers touch/ and you become words.’

Other areas of the arts are also part of this essential relationship with sound. ‘Listening to Miles Davis in the Cardiac Ward’, for example, is an evocative poem is which music blends with the recovery process as the ‘singing of the morphine’s/honey through the cannula/finds entrances to dark worlds,/lights bright pathways out of some.’ In ‘A Trick of the Light’ an old Van Morrison tune sung by ‘Someone somewhere across suburbia’ is a memory trigger, a trick of sound, ‘A place to be when the place is elsewhere’ because ‘it’s what music does.’ The cover image of ‘Evening Stillness’ by the artist Paula Dunn is ideal for The Sound Recordist, while in ‘Memory in a Hallway’ John Singer Sargent’s ‘perfected brush stroke’ of a Venetian Interior is ‘the art of pure translucency,/ open doors reflecting water.’ A reference elsewhere to ‘The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel’ by Louis Daguerre enhances the haunted atmosphere of a building where even the echoes have died.

‘Time and Light’ is a particularly evocative poem in Seán Street’s The Sound Recordist adding, as it does, another dimension to the soundscapes already created in this sequence. Sound has now become one of the mysteries of light/hidden and trapped’ while light in its turn will ‘impersonate sound’ and ‘Time’ moves ‘beyond flesh into air’. Everything now is caught in shadows – the ‘layered time’ of

vegetation where angels flew, fleeting
punctum of a flash on altar stone
and the wound of a place’s lost past healed.

Mandy Pannett 20th March 2021

Pimp by Ranney Campbell (Arroyo Seco Press)

Pimp by Ranney Campbell (Arroyo Seco Press)

Ranney Campbell’s Pimp comes out of a direct, narrative, unblinking tradition that includes artists like Kevin Ridgeway, Gerald Locklin, Patti Smith, and Fred Exley. These are poems drawn out of the latest period of Campbell’s life when she decided to change her life by quitting her job and moving to California as a way to break away from the traditions and limitations that she found in St. Louis, Missouri. She has found a way to express herself with a narrative clarity that speaks her truths.
Her work comes often from a memory of exploitation, which she might be angry about, but does not draw her into self-pity. “In Them Days” for example, she recalls a relationship with a man who

owned a Mercedes
dealership, how he loved
his beautiful things

I was most prized
living art
up in Alta Loma

snow
in the foothills

me
in the Jacuzzi

with those high-priced prostitutes
brought to party
when sales was good
any certain day (33).

Her work throughout has the ability to draw a picture and suggest arguments and conclusion with quick images and a couple of perfect words. We are left to ponder the implication of what it means to be a woman who is chosen to party with prostitutes. In “The Boys come,” she draws on a previous time when men simply demanded of her with no thought of reciprocity:

when they came across Gert,
they got lucky.
when they came across me,
they got stitches (12).

This collection is not by any means stuck in her past; it is equally about this new life that she is building for herself and how she came to be where she is. Her move from the Midwest and her longing to get to the West away from its humidity and to the dryness of the deserts is shown in her prose poem “Burn Off.” “Red desert. Tan desert. I don’t care. Can’t stand it here. All the trees and green and weeds and humidity and people so slowed and dull with Midwestern demands on me . . . Sticky thickness manner oppression offends my innards” (35). This reminds me so much of the themes that run through a lot of Locklin’s work. For him the East was a place of pointless oppression, and for Campbell it is Missouri, but both find a freedom to be themselves in California. For both of them, California seems to be the place where they can find the authenticity of their true selves. For Campbell, it has allowed for this book which is an expression of emotions in a style that she did not feel welcome writing in St. Louis.

Campbell’s book is the kind of work that I love to see coming out of Los Angeles. Stylistically it is what I have grown up with without being a kind of imitation of previous work. It is her own work, informed by an MFA from her hometown but innovated through the life she is pursuing in the West.

John Brantingham 3rd March 2021

Tears in the Fence 73 is out

Tears in the Fence 73 is out

Tears in the Fence 73 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, multlilingual poetry, translations, flash fiction and fiction from Mark Russell, Neha Maqsood, Penny Hope, Mandy Pannett, John Freeman, Sandra Galton, Wioletta Greg translated by Maria Jastrzębska & Anna Blasiak, Robert Sheppard, Peter Dent, Alison Lock, Caitlin Stobie, Jeffrey Graessley, Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani, L. Kiew, Mohammad Razai, Alex Barr, Michael Farrell, Olivia Tuck, Paul Rossiter, John Goodby, Maurice Scully, Tim Allen, Lucy Maxwell Scott, Anna-May Laugher, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Marcia Hindson, Hari Marini, Oliver Dixon, Gwen Sayers, Beth Davyson, Steve Spence, Valerie Bridge, S.J. Litherland, Karen Downs-Barton, Frances Presley, Mark Dickinson, Alison Brackenbury, Phil Williams, Rhea Seren Phillips, Oliver Southall, Sarah Salway and Sarah Watkinson.

The critical section consists of Louise Buchler’s Editorial, Jeremy Hilton on Hart Crane, Jeremy Reed on Denise Riley, Mandy Pannett on Sascha A. Akhtar, Geraldine Clarkson, Robert Hampson on Jeanne Heuving, Andrew Duncan on Molly Vogel, Clark Allison on Robin Fulton Macpherson, Walter Perrie, A.L. Kennedy, Guy Russell on Lesley Harrison, Alejandra Pizarnik, Mark Prendergast on Mercè Rodoreda, Siân Thomas on Susie Campbell, Steve Spence on the Plymouth Poetry Scene, David Caddy on Stephanie Burt’s Callimachus, Richard Scholar’s Émigrés, Ric Hool on Mélisande Fitzsimons, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 8 and Notes on Contributors.

River of Love by Aimee Medina Carr (Homebound Publication)

River of Love by Aimee Medina Carr (Homebound Publication)

Aimee Medina Carr’s debut novel River of Love follows the lives of indigenous young people in the 1960s and 1970s as they try to live in the Red Canon area of Colorado along the Arkansas River in a region that is dominated by powerful white people. She references and draws on thinkers and writers as diverse as St. Augustine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Eric Clapton, and dozens more, and it seems to me that this is a book that only could be written by someone who has read broadly and brings the associations of a lifetime with her. It is a far reaching book that looks to the experiences of a small group of kids but uses them to talk about our shared experience. What drew me in the most, however, was how Carr was able to use the experience of love for individuals, the natural world, and humanity to give us a path forward through those times and experiences that threaten to destroy us.
There is a level of nostalgia for the 1960s and 1970s that a lot of people have for that time. It is placed there, of course, by those who were young then, but I think anyone can identify with it, and so many of us have experienced a period in our lives when we were idealistic and everything seemed possible. Carr makes the point that these are not false memories. We might grow into cynicism, but it is the cynicism that is naive, not the hope. Her characters find a place of natural beauty and revitalization where they can find a space outside the confines of the social world along the Arkansas River, and through this repeated setting, she is able to make an argument as to how the natural world can bring out honesty and directness. It is the way to find love and a place where falseness is stripped away, especially the falseness associated with social convention. This is my favorite aspect of this tremendous novel, and I found myself lingering over these passages that brought me back to hope as a way forward.
The point of the novel, if a novel can be said to have a point, is the exceptional power and need for love. It can be summed up emotionally for me in one paragraph:

Love is the beginning, Love is the middle, and Love is the end, we will be judged only by how much we Loved in our lifetimes. Love gives life its meaning. Life gives us this one chance to Love (292).

Love here and in many parts of the novel is personified or maybe it takes on a god-like role, and that is one of the messages of it. Love is a powerful entity capable of changing us. It is perhaps the only thing that can change us for the better so Carr spends a good deal of time examining the different aspects of love and how they can be played out.
River of Love is not a novel to be rushed. I am a fairly fast reader, and I found myself needing to slow down to allow the emotion of the novel to work through me. I went back over lines and scenes to internalize what she was saying. I love what she is saying, and I agree with it. Nostalgia can be a force for stagnation, but that’s not what this is. She is looking back at a time that was meaningful to give us a way forward.

John Brantingham 18th February 2021

An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres (Beacon Press)

An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres (Beacon Press)

Michael Torres is one of the great writers coming out of the Pomona Valley area where notables such as Sam Shepard, Kem Nunn and more lately Matt Sedillo, David Romero, and George Hammons have written from and about. Torres’s debut poetry collection, An Incomplete List of Names from Beacon Press is very much about the experience of coming from this area and how a place can work itself into a person. It’s an exceptional work that is in part about how Pomona colors the way he sees and relates to the world, and the ways that the world relates to him.
Torres has moved out of Pomona and now lives in a college town in Minnesota where he teaches, but he describes the pain and awkwardness of carrying his past and his own expectations for himself with him. He writes:

I’m at a couch at
the professor’s house. And there are two

of me. One sits, cross legged, a glass of wine
in his hand. I don’t know what kind.

He offered and I said, Sure, that’d be
delightful . . .

The other me floats between the professor
and the glass, not wondering what this man

thinks of my use of the word dichotomy (6-7).

He seems to feel a good deal of awkwardness about the place he occupies, at once feeling that he does and should belong and at the same time feeling that he does not and should not. The collection captures so well what it means to grow into a position and to still feel that imposter syndrome that follows so many people through life. Throughout the collection, he is showing that he is doing exceptional work as a poet and a professor, but he still feels like an outsider.
However, that he feels like an outsider is not surprising as this status is enforced and reinforced by the society in which he lives. At a party in Minnesota, he is describing his hometown and friends to a woman: “When I mentioned my homies, she laughed. I stared. She stopped and said, Oh, you’re serious” (53). This collection is full of moments where society is subtly and unsubtly telling him that he just does not belong, which is of course, one of the major problems of the academic world. His nickname from his childhood REMEK that he used while tagging follows him, not that people identify him this way, but he still identifies internally as REMEK. It is a part of him, and it’s not just that Pomona follows him. He wants it to do so.

Before I left, I wanted
to tattoo this town across
my back. I thought POMONA
between my shoulder blades like
a pair of wings for all those
stories I had just in case
the sky asked where I’d been (65).

If he is an outsider in Minnesota, there is the feeling that he is being forcibly disconnected from this new academic society, but that he wants to be disconnected at least to some degree to retain that part of himself that he believes to be his authentic self.
There is, of course, more to An Incomplete List of Names than this, but Torres’s sense of self is central to the collection. It is an exceptional collection as social commentary and an autobiographical debut work.

John Brantingham 11th February 2021

John Kinsella speaks in support of Tears in the Fence

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Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Victoria Chang’s collection of mostly prose poetry, Obit, published by Copper Canyon Press, calls on a literary tradition of loss that builds from the poets whom Chang references such as Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, and I would say more modern poets like Sharon Olds and even Ted Kooser in his discussion of the loss of his father. Chang is a Los Angeles-based poet who has reached that time in her life when she must deal with the death of the previous generation, and Obit is simultaneously about that loss and the strange position those who mourn are put into.

With the gravity of loss, any other concern seems trivial and moving on with one’s life seems wrong. She discusses that emotion most directly in “The Doctors” where she writes, “To yearn for someone’s quick death seems wrong. To go to the hospital cafeteria and hunch over a table of toasts, pots of jam, butter glistening seems wrong. To want to extend someone’s life who is suffering seems wrong” (68). Anyone who has witnessed the process of the death and dying knows what she is capturing so well here. Even acknowledging that one feels awkward seems wrong because that emotion cannot compare to death, so we, like her, are left not knowing how to deal with death because we have no training for it.

Obit also clearly shows us how long the process of dying can be; the narrator’s father suffers from dementia and her mother from pulmonary fibrosis. She has to watch as her mother loses oxygen over months and years. The knowledge of the coming death is overwhelming, and her father’s dementia after a stroke turns a once intelligent mind foggy. In “Language,” she writes, “Letters used to skim my father’s brain before they let go. Now his words are blind. Are pleated” (10). It is a slow burning pain developed throughout the collection, and her poems like the reality of this condition are complex and subtle.

This was a painful book for me to read, but also a necessary one. I read it slowly having to deal with the pain that is in my life as well, but that is not to say I didn’t welcome the process. This is a healing book. Part of the problem with dealing with death is that we do not have a good vocabulary for it, and we feel that there are so many aspects that should not be discussed as though our emotions surrounding death cheapen it. That fact makes the process so much more difficult, but here, Chang is speaking about it out loud. By doing so, she is giving us a vocabulary for mourning.

John Brantingham 3rd February 2021

Pin Ups by Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books)

Pin Ups by Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books)

Yi Shun Lai, author of Not A Self Help Book and weekly columnist in Writer magazine, is a New Yorker who honed her craft writing for the J. Peterman catalog. Yes, that J. Peterman. So, on face value, it might be surprising that her latest book recounts a grueling journey into the world of outdoor adventure sports. However, the brisk, 46 page, Pin Ups is exactly that, a portrait of the author’s sporting experience. It begins with a childhood fascination with BMX racing, progresses through skiing, hiking, and windsurfing, and finally culminates with her love for adventure racing. However, while Yi Shun’s passion for the outdoors radiates from the page, at its core, Pin Ups also presents a more personal and universally relatable story, the quest to discover one’s identity.
The memoir opens with Yi Shun’s childhood where, like many of us, her search for meaning relies upon the emulation of media figures. In her youth, her mother supplied her with copies of Teen magazine in an attempt to sway Yi Shun into more traditionally feminine interests. Instead, she perused them and cut out articles on BMX biking and football, already drawn to outdoor sports, but participating vicariously through the girls on the page.
Later, throughout college and living in Manhattan, she attached her identity to the activities of the men she dated. With each new relationship came a new fascination, from volleyball to windsurfing to mountain biking, each discovery a step further to an understanding of herself. However, none of these pursuits inspired a genuine passion. Still, Yi Shun continued to stay active. In her words, “When you are hungry, you’ll eat anything.”
Her journey comes to a climax when, through camaraderie with other women, she discovers adventure racing. It is a teamwork centric, outdoor sport that involves a variety of activities, including mountain biking, trail running, paddling, and rock climbing. Through adventure racing and the people she meets both on and off the trail, Yi Shun comes to embrace herself as a woman, a minority, and an athlete.
Naturally, finding oneself comes with the acceptance of some ugly truths. Yi Shun experiences a classic, dreaded moment, the oh god, my parents were right. During a trip to Carmel, California, she enjoys the quaint, diverse area and considers moving there. In this moment, Yi Shun is distressed to realize that her mother had been correct. She enjoys the traditionally comfortable, upwardly mobile lifestyle. However, Yi Shun takes this jarring realization in stride, as we all should when moments of sudden development strike. Through work and family, she finds the way to balance her want for comfort with her yearning for the dirt and the danger of the outdoors. Such a response is admirable and should be looked upon as an example of how to embrace the uncomfortable realizations that accompany personal growth.

In the most tender and moving passage, she recalls herself walking through Manhattan on a particularly windy day when she spots the shadow of a woman.
“”(She was) Brisk and efficient, collar popped against the wind, making her way around the corner. “Hm,” I thought to myself, echoes of my father’s sentiment creeping through my brain, “that’s the kind of woman I want to grow up to be.” It was a split second before I realized that the shadow belonged to me.””

Fully realized, brisk in pace, and deep in meaning, Pin Ups is a motivational and thought provoking piece reminiscent of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Laura Bell’s Claiming Ground. Yi Shun has crafted a book that is essential for anyone who feels a calling for outdoor competition or who has ever wondered what it really means to be themselves in this complicated world.

Little Bound Books has also published work by L.M. Browning, Heidi Barr, and Will Falk.

Andrew Hughes 2nd February 2021

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