Monday, October 23, 2006

NEW! Review of Christine Garren

The Piercing by Christine Garren. Louisiana State University Press, $16.95.

Reviewed by Christopher C. Vola

In her newest and most engrossing book, The Piercing, Christine Garren showcases her faith in the exhilaration found in the overtly commonplace with 50 short, strikingly beautiful poems. Her imaginative, surprising, and yet somehow accurate reactions to routine events and objects call to mind recent collections such as James Tate’s Return to the City of White Donkeys and Mary Ruefle’s Post-Meridian. However, unlike Tate and Ruefle, Garren’s poems rely for the most part on understatements, on calmly describing the things that all of us see to uncover any number of darkly energizing truths. In “Childhood” from Among The Monarchs (University of Chicago Press, 2000), she uses her surroundings to explore a powerful moment between a mother and her daughter:
From the tree, a swing is hung. A mallet
rests against a fence. And on the lawn, a woman gathers pecans.
I think about her all the time,
partly in disbelief, partly because she is my mother. But now it’s dusk.

The calm and momentary sounds, the familiar objects, the subtle change in the sky--the spaces in between the moment--all seem to endow the brief and apparently insignificant reflections of a child with a mysterious and captivating strength.

The poems in The Piercing begin just as innocently, often painting an objective, tranquil, and pastoral picture--a flock of geese passing overhead, rain falling through trees, two boys swimming. When read alone, these descriptions are quaint and occasionally touching, but Garren’s true prowess surfaces later in the poems when she describes her own interactions with these scenes in order to create personal, sensitive moments that lead to abrupt yet rewarding resolutions. For example, in “The Teaching,” we see a “long rectangular yard behind the house. / At dusk the birds came, eating the berries / while the olive-colored leaves blackened,” and think that we have seen this autumn scene hundreds of times, that this is our own backyard, that this is a place that merits little more than a passing glance. But Garren shows us that this small patch is in fact an invigorating jungle filled with strange trees, strangling vines and explosions, and implores us to look to “the small wildernesses of it, / the blown-everywhere leaves, as it was true / here / its ruin was its beauty.” An unlocked door, a large box, and an old photo album elicit similar responses from the poet.

In his review of Garren’s first book, Afterworld (University of Chicago Press, 1993), W.S. Di Piero writes, “[Garren’s poetry] lives in the commonplaces of life but opens into mysterious invisible orders.” Throughout The Piercing, she continually takes the reader to a world where even the most fleeting images conjure the ever-present longings of a not-too-distant past, a world where “The gulls, blanched in the dark / were coming in behind the boats--from so long ago / this has gained such force inside of me,” a world where the surreal and the rational collide with a seamlessness that is rare and, in most cases, visually satisfying. Summer grass, torn bits of paper and the whirring of a ceiling fan all serve as catalysts for the emotional and sometimes frightening confessions, for the stories that exist behind the mask of the ordinary, for the “little death beneath the clouds / that the bells fragment.” These stories are what make Garren’s latest work a stirring read. In “Break,” she relates to a deep sense of loss when “a few autumn leaves fell past us, with spots on them, drifting / over us, with a distinct departing noise-- / and we looked up / into exactly how they came, those early ones / that frightened us.”

Many of the poems’ lyrical qualities stem from Garren’s expert use of line breaks. In “Safe,” as well as in other poems, this lyricism allows her to instill a subtly driving rhythm, one that provides the reader with a sense of anticipation, of not knowing where the poem is going, but of wanting to get there:
the sound of dark rushing past us
the damp scent of darkness

the cocaine powders, the thoughts

not beautiful

In these lines one can find the music for which Garren is best known--a quiet sonata resonating possibility, desire, and an interior fierceness that drives the reader to an often unlooked-for conclusion.

Within the arrangements of this music, there also exists a sense of finality that hangs over The Piercing, much in the same way a dark rain cloud slowly expands over an otherwise pleasant picnic. Unlike the picnickers who may begin to curse the sky as its downpour ruins their tuna casserole, Garren understands the inevitability of time’s continuously buzzing machine and embraces it, acknowledging that “The exhilarating life is finished. We must accept it / this late afternoon and move / back into the rational world.” While so much of The Piercing relies on uncertainty, one concrete message is that all things must come to an end, an end foretold by such inconspicuous and overt signs as the coming of winter, a dead goldfish floating in a pond, an anchor being lifted from the water, a nervous cow before its slaughter. However, alongside this notion of fatality lies an equally salient notion of regeneration, the sense that “death must be equal to its directionlessness,” that the world is cyclical and can revert from blackness to daylight in an instant, that the failings of a middle-aged woman can be forgotten in the quiet steps of her tiny daughter.

The sparseness of Garren’s prose and her superficially simple musings make The Piercing a complex book--accessible yet densely packed, calm and focused yet completely unnerving. The book ends much in the same way as it begins, unassuming but sharply poignant: “Look, there you go. There I go--There our landscape goes as if / through a fantastical roof’s hole, the shingle pulled off, the nail off-- / our death is / flying over the city.” In a collection so plentiful in ambiguity, in melancholy and hopefulness, in arrivals and departures, one thing is certain: The Piercing is Garren’s finest work, a book for those seeking adventure and for those who have already found it in their own backyards.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

NEW! Review of Tony Tost

World Jelly by Tony Tost. Effing Press, $7.

Reviewed by Ezekiel Black

Many book reviews and blurbs enjoy describing a book in its own words. They use a quote from the book, for example, to derive some convenient insight. This method might be considered empty, equivalent to the pandering spiel found on a Historical Romance’s back cover, but it could also be considered profound. Many editions of the Bible, for example, include the section “What the Bible says about itself,” where a collection of scripture outlines the Bible’s divine authority. Although World Jelly’s introspection does not offer the word of God, it does provide a glimpse into the book’s overall project:
Words are magic
because they hang
one mystical experience
away from a crisis

Words can separate the crisis, the fight-or-flight immediacy, from a mystical experience, so one can examine the poetry held within. If words did not remove the crisis, one could not digest the situation’s poetry, like someone unable to think “I can’t wait to tell my friends about this high-speed chase” because he or she is too busy getting out of the way. Essentially, words distill the everyday into poetry, and one can see the everyday in World Jelly, as in this stanza:
Rhetorical answers
to actual headlights
in the unbroken slowing
too cold for the animals
to decompose

The headlights answer the speaker’s rhetorical question about what is in the road, and the speaker must abruptly decelerate to avoid the roadkill. The speaker would not initially think “I could make this into a great stanza” because he or she is taken by the situation’s urgency, but once the speaker and the incident have some distance, the possibility for poetry becomes apparent. Maybe this interpretation--the reformation of the everyday into verse--is coincidental, but World Jelly does paraphrase its mission again and again, like in the stanza “Small bag of the present / at the mercy of the sentence.”

The fun of World Jelly emerges from the surprising range of the everyday. The book is not through-and-through white-knuckle crisis. Although it can be heavy, some of the crisis is lighthearted: “Buoys and gulls / the rhetoric of inevitability / hits its spot every time.” If the “buoys and gulls” reference seems opaque, World Jelly does provide an insert to clarify some of the pop culture allusions, like Bob Dylan, Charlton Heston, and The Band. These notes also reveal how esoteric the book is, how some poems employ anecdotes that only Tost and his company would know. For example, one poem includes the stanza “Rett has duende,” which is a game to compose the best three-word poem that Paul White, Robert Bell, and Tost play. The reader could not, prima facie, appreciate that stanza’s depth because its full significance lies hidden inside the notes. As long as the notes are present, though, World Jelly’s impermeability seems insignificant. Fortunately, checking the notes is not a chore because they contain material that is just as entertaining as the book.

World Jelly is a playful book, similar to Invisible Bride, but much less concrete. The book will suspend the reader in a pool of abstract thought, heightened by the lack of punctuation, and the book is self-conscious of this fact, adding some self-deprecating humor:
My blue rags
have some kind of power
smaller than the period
at the end of this sentence

The lack of punctuation allows each thought to bleed into the next line, each line to bleed into the next stanza, and each poem to bleed into the next poem. To aid this movement, the beginning of each poem, except for a modest initial, is indiscernible, containing no title or epigraph. This ebb and flow will lull the reader into the book’s dreamscape, where one-line stanzas, esoteric humor, pop culture, the everyday, and a menagerie of animals rule. Altogether, this book contains a strange but praiseworthy universe.