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Chaos and Ash by Kendall Johnson (Pelekinesis Press)

Chaos and Ash by Kendall Johnson (Pelekinesis Press)

In a world where movies and books often treat trauma casually and even glibly, Kendall Johnson’s Chaos and Ash from Pelekinesis Press gives us an inside view of what it truly is and what treatment actually looks like. Johnson is someone who understands trauma. He is a Vietnam combat veteran and a former firefighter who rushed into the chaos of wildland fires in California. He later became a trauma psychotherapist and consultant specializing in big events. He was a second responder to 9/11, the Rodney King uprising in Los Angeles, wildfires across the United States, and the Northridge earthquake. He is someone who has spent a lifetime dealing with his trauma and others’, and where other books I have read treat the concept as an aside, Johnson’s book gives it the weight it deserves.

     That Chaos and Ash is a fictionalized memoir in flash and a few other forms is appropriate to the way he helps us to understand what trauma is. It is fictionalized to some degree to protect those he worked with. He does not describe the real events of his patients, but creates out of a lifetime of therapy. It is flash vignette because there is no clear throughline, nothing easy that we can find. There is not one simple thesis statement that can help us to understand the concept. Instead, what he deals with are fragments and moments that often do not make a logical kind of sense on top of which, he has not fully recovered all of the memories that he is trying to work through in this book. Much of what happened in Vietnam is coming back to him, and while a half-remembered event in most memoirs would not work for me, in this collection, that half-memory is the point. What we are getting is what it is to be inside the mind of someone suffering from this pain, and it is not easy, and it is certainly not clear.

     Beyond the flash, Johnson uses a few other forms as well to open up what he is talking about through the way he says it. He is also an abstract expressionist painter, and a number of his pieces are scattered through the book, giving us another path into his experience. He has poetry here and there. Later, he includes open letters to the NRA and Congress, one to parents and teachers, and a third to incident commanders. These take his artistic expressions that might be interpreted in multiple ways and add a more direct argument as to what he sees as the problems with the way society is working, how it throws us off balance. These multiple approaches help us to understand what he is talking about in a number of ways.

     This is not a pornography of violence and trauma. Johnson is not simply laying out his and other people’s pain so that we might gain a kind of vicarious experience. He is creating a fiction based on his life so that others might see what moving forward means. He is making the point that this is not something to be cured through a couple of sessions of therapy. In fact, he is showing us that the concept of being cured is absurd. There is no such thing as leaving it behind but rather he is looking for ways to move forward through this kind of pain. 

     The main character who like Johnson is a trauma psychotherapist who has been to Vietnam himself is in therapy himself, and his psychologist helps him to deal with both the pain he lived and the secondary trauma of those who work with trauma survivors. He speaks to his therapist about the role he is expected to play and how he gets through it:

“I’m expected to project an attitude of ‘I’ve seen it all and know just what to do.’ That’s half the magic.” I felt myself going on the defensive a little. “And when I’m not OK, when I’m scared of the situation and don’t know what to do, I fake it. I guess I manage to selectively dissociate, to take note of my feelings, and then put them in a closet somewhere and get on with it.” 

“You certainly got good at that in Vietnam. And paid a price for it—you’ve been disconnected for years. Amnesia. Our work would have gone more quickly if you hadn’t been dragging around a pretty big sack of leftovers.” 

I took a breath and let it out slowly. “It may not be perfect, but I guess I get by.”

Over the years, I have enjoyed popular nonfiction psychology books, but none of them have shown me what real pain looks like as this fictional account does. Those books are often neat and their discussions give observations that are meant to be definitive. This is a discussion of how messy psychological pain is, how his experiences in the past are rubbing up against the way he is trying to help people in the present in his practice. Psychologists have often presented themselves as godlike, able to clearly and easily point to this or that and solve or at least identify the problem immediately. Johnson lets us know that such an attempt does not make a lot of sense because problems are layered upon other problems and the psychologist is just a human being trying to see the patient through the foggy lens of his past.

     For me, Chaos and Ash was refreshing. It is nice to have someone speak truth about something that should be taken seriously and so often is not.

John Brantingham 3rd January 2020

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

John Brantingham’s newest book, Life, Orange to Pear, begins and ends with fruit.

I’m not spoiling anything for you. It’s right there in the title. It’s also, surprise, about life–how it begins, ends, and everything in between. The simple act of eating fruit in the opening and closing scenes of this book poses the idea that we can find comfort in the simplest moments so long as we choose to look for it. This book proposes that we must appreciate simplicity while we, at the same time, grapple with complexity and existential terror.

Written in a casual, second-person voice, Orange to Pear follows the life and fatherhood of a very flawed but well-meaning part-time college professor and father who also happens to be a functioning alcoholic. Using this voice, this book argues that there are no easy solutions. Instead of groping for answers to the Problem of Evil, or whether we’re defined by our flaws, or how much we doom our children to repeat our lives, this story offers something else–an unadulterated, almost Christ-like empathy.

It also, however, demonstrates how even human beings with the best intentions can be ineffective, destructive, and self-sabotaging. How sometimes people will use any excuse to enact the destructive behaviors at their core. How passivity, over-intellectualizing, and destructive behavior masquerading as self-care can be paralyzing. That certain patterns of living leave a person completely adrift, wondering and hoping instead of acting. The narrator (and by extension the reader) is often left not knowing if he’s done his best. The story reaches a conclusion on this, and it’s carefully crafted, but I won’t summarize it. I can’t. Like many of the things that matter in this world, it can’t be retold, only experienced. One of the gifts of this book is that it revels in uncertainty while also being clear, direct, and brief. Brantingham captures what life is like moment-to-flawed-moment as we scrape (often unsuccessfully) for meaning, importance, and decency–and how painful, divine, and silly these moments can be.

The narrative centers around the flawed narrator’s connection to his daughter, Cyndi. As the story evolves, the uncertainty this man faces as his daughter, despite his every attempt to slow her down, grows up and then eventually outgrows him. This is the archetypal coming-of-age story from the unusual perspective of a broken parent–a man who drinks through breakfast, seems only marginally employed, and who never, ever, refers to his wife by her name. He makes mistakes in pursuit of what he thinks is right–and what he believes is right coincidentally serves to allow him to indulge himself.

At one point, he makes an indirect, not very collected attempt at confronting an acquaintance (who is proudly showing him the taxidermized foot of an elephant that has been made into furniture) about wealth inequality, gleefully burning an important social bridge for his wife:

And as you walk out your daughter beams at you for the first time in a long time and it makes you want to storm out, which you do, as well as anyone can storm and also stop off by the bar for one more glass of the good stuff.

He’s done the right thing. Maybe. He’s done it to earn the pride of his daughter, who finds the man abhorrent, but one can’t help but notice that he’s also getting another drink out of it. He’s–in the true mindset of an addict–earning another drink.

These characters have the simultaneously empathetic and pathetic qualities of Kurt Vonnegut characters. They’re whole, flawed, and alive in a way that lets us one feels their own aliveness. By the time you’ve reached the end of this book you hate the narrator. And you love him. You regret all of his mistakes and realize why they were so important. You wouldn’t undo them even if you could because you’ve found something divine in them.

Bamboo Dart Press are also publishing Dennis Callaci, Stephanie Barbé Hammer and Meg Pokrass in their fiction series.

Scott Noon Creley 11th November 2020

John Brantingham’s The Green of Sunset

John Brantingham’s The Green of Sunset

Regular Tears in the Fence contributor, John Brantingham has followed up his crime novel, Mann of War (Dark Oak Mysteries 2013) and collection of short stories Let Us All Now Pray To Our Own Strange Gods (World Parade Books 2013) with a collection of poetry, The Green of Sunset from Moon Tide Press.

 

The Green of Sunset consists of two sequences of prose poems that show the strengths of simplicity and lightness of touch and pitch in creating a memorable collection. They are comparable to Lee Harwood in their clarity and delicacy. Indeed the title poem addressed to an unborn child reminded me of Harwood’s ‘Salt Water’ on the loss of his child. Whereas Harwood deploys an extraordinary restraint and control through his line breaks and hiatuses, Brantingham has no line breaks, speaks directly to the unborn, is restrained, and looks to the simple nourishing things of life as a source of renewal.

 

These unsentimental prose poems draw upon childhood memories, travels to London, Canada, New York, the Sequoia National Park Trail to Bearpaw Meadow in 1978, 1985 and 2005, the streets and freeways of Los Angeles, and his engagement with the life and poetry of Wilfred Owen to embrace what matters most in life. It is in the broadest sense a work of spiritual resonance with a big American heart. This self-deprecating poet of Los Angeles has a wide reach straddling his ancestral family roots in Yorkshire, the God of Lindisfarne, mountain climbing in California, the impact of seeing Chaucer’s grave or a satellite crossing Orion, praise poems for dogs and insects, all marked and dated with the spit of suggestion and the ‘time and mildew’ that pulls apart.

 

The Dog, Autumn 1979

 

Eight days after the operation, I’m walking home by myself when a dog starts to bark at me from behind his gate. I must have heard a dog before then. I must have. But the sharpness of his yelling fills my ears, and he stops me, and I cannot move from the place I’m standing until someone comes out and finds me staring at him and weeping.

 

The book has a foreword by Donna Hilbert and a cover design by Ann Brantingham. I think that many readers will return to this supple, entertaining and moving collection.

 

David Caddy

Gerald Locklin’s Novellas

Gerald Locklin’s Novellas

Spout Hill Press have republished Gerald Locklin’s classic novella, The Case Of The Missing Blue Volkswagen, originally published in 1984, republished in 1999, with an introduction by John Brantingham that views its post-modern style and structure as a means of having a conversation with the reader about the limits of fiction. It is a fruitful way into the work that is at once playful, funny and greater than the sum of its parts. Locklin’s casual style functions effectively on many levels and is very funny.

http://spouthillpress.com

Spout Hill has also published Locklin’s lost novella’s Last Tango in Long Beach and Come Back, Bear to present the original trilogy for the first time.  If you have never read any Locklin, the best introduction is to say that he entertains and provokes in equal measure in a beguiling way. A central figure in Los Angeles writing since the Seventies, these beautifully produced novellas are at the heart of his social satire.

 

Locklin’s Deep Meanings: Selected Poems 2008-2013 from Presa Press contains some of his best recent poetry.  As Edward Field writes, ‘The male spirit in him remains honest, bighearted, sentimental, generous, gentle, vulnerable, but sassy in the face of adversity…’ I have always thought that he is the male equivalent to that other brilliant maverick Camille Paglia. Both are always worth reading.

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