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Building Stonehenge by Marc Maurus (Arroyo Seco Press)

Building Stonehenge by Marc Maurus (Arroyo Seco Press)

     Marc Maurus’s Building Stonehenge is revealing and vulnerable in the way that Kevin Ridgeway and T. Anders Carson’s is, allowing his readers to have access to the complex interior life that many people hold secret. It is a work that comes not so much out of a suicide attempt, but at the vitality and life that followed it. Maurus intentionally drove into a concrete barrier at sixty miles an hour without an air bag or a seat belt and lived but experienced extensive brain damage. His doctors told him that his only possible path forward to recovery was by reading constantly, which he did, and against the odds, that treatment worked. What followed was a period of exceptional creativity, introspection, and even joy, and these poems are a result of that time. On my first reading of the collection, I thought of “The Day My Life Stood Still” (51) as the central poem of the collection because it describes his injury and cause of it. I think that was a mistake however. I think what is central to the collection is what brought him back to happiness and healing.

     Healing came out of a time when he read every moment that he was awake, and certain authors, especially Beat poets like Kerouac and Ginsberg, found their way through several of these poems. He has a gratitude for them. He constructs the cento “Timothy Leary’s Dead” out of a number of sources, but relying on these poets for key lines and understanding to his meaning. What he creates is not simple nostalgia, but a way of reseeing the old ideas and reapplying them to our world now. He does not reference only these writers by any means. They just seem central to his thinking. His poems convey a broad sensibility and a good deal of reading the books that he loved. Because of his brain injury, he would read these books again and again, and to me it feels like they have become a part of who he is and how he filters experience. This is not a bad filter.

     Another theme that runs through the book is a kind of call to humanity and to recognize that everyone is deserving of the human experience. Now that he is in recovery, he is able to hold a job, and one of those is as an ice cream man. He describes a moment when he gives a child who has little money an ice cream. This basic kind of dignity seems to be the mission that all of his reading has led him to. He inspects his own complicity in the poor race relations of the United States and looks to himself to improve, showing others a way forward. He praises those who do good and exhorts us to do the same. For me it functioned as a reminder of what kindness is and how to express it.

     It is no surprise that constant reading leads to kindness. Anyone who reads deeply knows that it helps to develop empathy. I think the great take away from the collection for me was that reading and thinking deeply leads people to their best selves. It has certainly let Maurus in a positive direction.

John Brantingham 4th June 2021

The Low Passions by Anders Carlson-Wee (W.W. Norton & Company)

The Low Passions by Anders Carlson-Wee (W.W. Norton & Company)

Anders Carlson-Wee’s newest collection The Low Passions reframes some of the conventional American views of poverty and wealth much in the same way that Charles Bukowski, FrancEye, and Kevin Ridgeway have. In this collection, he asks us to reevaluate our conceptions of poverty and wealth, and also simply allows us to see the day to day lives of the people around us. At times, his work reminds me of all of these authors, and of Kerouac too, especially as he travels, but he is doing something beyond them as well, updating them, showing us what life is currently for so many people.

     Much of what Carlson-Wee reveals is what it takes to survive well. In “Asking for Work at Flathead Bible,” he works for a pastor as a “floater,” doing the work that he is asked to do on a day-to-day basis, and never knowing what is coming next. “It was easier to adapt than you’d think. / If I had a hammer in my hand, I pulled nails. / If I had a sheet, I found the corner” (28). Adaptation and dignity are two of the basic components of the collection. He finds ways to survive, and he thrives in those places. The people he meets have dignity as well. When his cousin passes away, he and his family find a way to bury him with the kind of honor he deserves. It’s hard to raise the money, so they find ways to make the burial more affordable: “And someone from Odegard / Funeral Home . . . gave us permission to come a day early / and dig the hole” (74). This kind of basic decency, from the diggers and the funeral home, is part of what I love about the collection. It’s often a primer on being human.

     Carlson-Wee also gives us a perspective of what it means not to be kind, not to be human. “Mark” sums up this perspective well when he writes, “Some say / we’re still on the way to human” (67). There are people with power in this collection who help others and there are people with power who try to destroy others. Perhaps, the character who will stay with me the longest is from “To the Rail Cop at Rathdrum.” Here, an officer catches the narrator trespassing in the railyard and warming himself with a fire. There is no thought of the idea that he might need the fire to survive. He simply handcuffs the narrator to a piling, and then tries to trick and manipulate the narrator into giving up his brother to be arrested too, assuming that someone else is probably with him. He threatens the narrator and tries to get him to betray his companion, all for the relatively minor crime of trespassing.

     The Low Passions is an exceptionally insightful look into the bad and good of human nature, and I was pleased to be involved with Carlson-Wee’s consciousness for the day. The vision he has given me asks me to look and relook at the people around me.

John Brantingham 28th April 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

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