Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dog Years by Mark Doty

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Publisher: Harper Collins Publisher (2007)
ISBN-10: 0739490001
ISBN-13: 978-0739490006

Although I was well aware of this author's work, knew the name and the general bio, I had yet to ever actually dip into either the prose or poetry of Mark Doty. Being a dog owner, I decided to begin (and end, depending on what I would find here) with Dog Years. I understood soon enough on opening the book that this will most certainly not be the end of my new literary acquaintance. Doty is a master.

When one sees a book cover of a pretty, snowy street with two dogs on a stroll, the expectation might be for something sentimental, even maudlin. With a back blurb hinting at a story dealing with death, hmm, how easy it would be to sink into that muck. But Doty not only walks over this potential trap, he dances over it.

This memoir that captures an ending of a human life, the beginning of a new life for both humans and dogs, then the ending of dog lives, is exquisite in its light and intelligent, elegant touch. Rather than whining away into a cry of despair over a lover's death, Doty manages beautifully to convey the void, the suffering, even the despair without even once taking a nose-dive. In great part, he does so by keeping his focus on the dogs in his life. We see the human heart via the dog's heart. We see the love of relationship, the unfolding of intimacy, the balm of utter loyalty, the abyss of despair, and all the gradations between, by the interactions between man and dog, dog and man.

Between the chapters that move the story forward, Doty has interspersed short reflections he calls "entr'acte." These are a surfacing of the human voice in wondering, in meditation. For example, in reflection on the concept of time and loneliness, Doty writes in one of these short respites: "Sometimes I think the place where God is not is time; that is the particular character of the mortal adventure, to be bound in time, and thus to arrive, inevitably, at the desolation of limit ... Not trying to look outside of time (if such is even possible to us), but farther into it, pushing our faces up toward vanishing, to that vaporous line between here and not. Power that animates and erases: hello and yes, good-bye and no. To look right into the blank behind the eyes of the skull. To let yourself get used to that wind that blows there."

We've all thought about this countless times. Only Doty could have put it into these words.

So unfolds Doty's story of losing his long-time partner to HIV, the comfort the couple's black retriever, Arden, brings in this passage. A new dog coming into the household, Beau, a golden, is the vehicle for moving forward. The dogs bring comfort, understanding, companionship. They share the weight of sorrow and grief. They offer a silent strength when Doty despairs to the point of gazing too long into the abyss, considering the jump. The dogs also become an added bond between Doty and eventual new partner, writer Paul Lisicky, and in the changing routines of the dogs, we see also the changed routine a new love can bring.

Be sure this is not all sadness and woe. Doty's humor is often evident, but never overpowering. We taste it best in his recounting of the new couple's travels in a car with both dogs, and cats, too, cross-country to their new home in Provincetown, Cape Cod. (Doty marvels at the madness of such a journey, yet the delight it brings in remembering it.) We see the town and its cast of colorful characters more through the eyes (and noses) of the dogs than the owners, but in essence that becomes the point ... men and dogs are so intertwined, their lives so interdependent, that it is all one and the same. Finally, as time will require its pay, we read of the death of one dog, then the next. This, too, has no howl at the moon about it, no whine or self-pity or even dog-pity. All is dignity. All is a meditation. All is the spice of life: relationship.

"A good end, we tell ourselves, a fine end ..." And it is. But most certainly leading to the reading of more of Doty's work.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Five Books of Marriage by Harry Owen (poetry)

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 108 pages
Publisher: AuthorHouse (June 6, 2008)
Price: $10.99
ISBN-10: 1434371077
ISBN-13: 978-1434371072

Almost enough to make you want to peel your heart again, open it up and toss it up to the bright sky and risk flame. Harry Owen puts the heart to poetry, peels it raw, exposes its hard pit, crushes it into dust, then from dust forms man again. These are his five books of marriage, and it is a marriage of one and one, two others, but also one and one, self to self.

There's that first, hot blush:

a tongue roving her moist-lubed helix

to a sudden hot

seizure, a two-stroked scream, a poem

where all metaphor dies.

There's that hitting of a flat place, when water goes flat as foil, and when a marriage grows inexplicably cool, even while one is left wondering at the loss and what could possibly come after:

But restored to the depths, will he dream of

the suns he has seen? Will he scavenge the dark silt

lusting for that terror of dazzling truth...

And will he live?

He does. And how. As raw and brave and as primal as ever, in memories alongside a rites of passage into new, traveling back and forth, because we all know time in love is never linear:

We shall rise, you and I, like a gloom

and feast.

And she? Is:

too old a habit to wear again,

too clamped a future to recollect,

too filled with emptiness to cry.

So one moves forward, because there really is no choice in the matter. Decision Time:

In the end it isn't hard -

you face the wall,

reach the bottom of the sand-slope,

stand at the water's edge.

Think about it, write it down:

Yes or no?


And so Book 5 is that new beginning, some poems of which are a reoccurence of those that appeared at the very beginning... Gen and also Levis, Owen's sensuality coming to life again, hope alive again, as beautiful, no, more beautiful still for all its imperfection:

...It's obverse,

negative, inside-out, this happiness,

not borrowed but felt, owned:

your plain reflection in clear glass,

every scar, every blemish

and it is good.

Owen is more than good. As I remarked when I first came across his work: achingly good. He has all the marks of a grand poet, and is one. His love of language is slick and fine and wonderful: alliteration, play, fresh metaphor, the stunning a-ha moment, the twist and surprise, the absolute courage of the true artist to go naked onto the printed page. One very nearly says a prayer of thanks by book end for its blessing of rebirthed ordinary language dipped into the sauce of extraordinary. One does.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 298 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books (August 26, 2008)
Price: $23.95
ISBN-10: 1565124723
ISBN-13: 978-1565124721

“I’m the girl they found standing on the table. The girl who traced the cracks in the wall with her mother’s blood.”

How we hope little Ellie will come through the dark places of her 11 years of life whole again, as whole as one might expect from the insanity she has survived. We want to believe. Throughout the entire novel, Tomato Girl, author Jayne Pupek’s first, we have been holding our breath with that hope. A former social worker, Pupek has, after all, described this little girl and the wrenching abuse surrounding her at every turn to such effect that we feel almost as if we share that life.

It is a deeply uncomfortable place to be. But Pupek has not meant us to be comfortable. Far from it. We have only that shred of hope that in the very first page, we are invited to read the notebook in which Ellie writes as a form of therapy. That means—Ellie has survived long enough to even get to therapy. Even as she sits in the cellar writing among the glass jars of pickled tomatoes, some of which begin quite eerily to look like the face of a pickled fetus.

One of those pickled objects had been. Baby Tom, her stillborn brother, had been in one of those jars because his mother, Ellie’s mother, couldn’t bear to part with him. And if that was not unbearable enough, consider scenes of a mother gone mad with some inner torment, taunted by a husband who is not only sleeping with a teenage girl, not so very much older than Ellie, but has even brought that girl into their home. To live. With him. Moving out of his marital bed into the sewing room. One can feel the palpable madness swirling off the written page like an evil vapor. Oh, the torments we inflict one upon the other …

Ellie observes all of this with the hopeful heart and na├»ve eyes of a young girl. Since the book is written in first-person narrative, we sense far more quickly than Ellie does exactly what it is that she is seeing. There’s a Lolita thing going on here. A brewing pedophilia. A middle-aged man sinking into perversion and temptation, leaving despair and madness in his wake. Ellie can only wonder why Daddy talks so long at the hardware store, where he is a long-time clerk, with the “tomato girl,” who brings her crops of reddened, plump fruit to sell. Ellie sees the way Daddy’s eyes linger overlong. That he sometimes touches the girl. That the girl touches him, and then, Ellie glimpses a quick kiss, and she struggles to understand. Tess, the tomato girl, comes from an abusive home, too. Daddy later tries to explain away his growing obsession with the primping teen girl—a cute blonde with too much make-up and earrings that dangle to her bare shoulders, snapping gum and paging through women’s magazines, oh so teen—by telling Ellie he is taking Tess in to save her from her abusive father. As if he were somehow saving one girl from an abusive father while inflicting it upon his own daughter. Oh, the power of rationalization …

Tess has occasional epileptic seizures, and while she is so incapacitated, her father has indeed taken, shall we say, advantage. Pupek develops here with expertise the mind games men play when they want their piece of female flesh. Tess’s father manages to tell himself he has the right, she’s his girl. Ellie’s father manages to paint himself a hero in his own eyes, bringing the teen into his own bed, under his own roof, insisting upon the compassion of his wife and young daughter. While his wife spirals into a demented and suicidal state—she can’t be fooled—Ellie, like most any child, dotes on her father and works and works to please him, to remain in the circle of his wandering eye, daily forgiving him, even as her understanding grows. She needs to forgive him. For her own sanity. This is her Daddy. And he does, after all, keep telling her how he loves her. How he needs her to be good. To be kind to sweet Tess. And the boundaries continue to be pushed farther and farther.

As such scenarios must, they eventually end in a splash of unspeakable suffering and an explosion of violence. There is a murder, there is a suicide, there is more than one emotional breakdown, and there is, in the center of it all, little Ellie, trying desperately to hold an unraveling world together. No one survives intact. By conclusion, the reader is exhausted with emotion, sighing with relief at one’s own saner world, but the realization remains: such things happen. Every day. In more and more homes, and perhaps even in the one next door. As our family protective services agencies are near bursting with cases of abuse, too many still going unreported, and domestic violence is on the increase, and values fall by the wayside in how we treat those in our primary relationships in pursuit of baser pleasures … the story of Ellie and Tess, the tomato girl, may grow as common as tomatoes.

Pupek, also a published poet, has made a worthy contribution with her first novel. Not only as a literary accomplishment, but also a social one.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Exorcism by Larissa Shmailo

Poetry CD Review by Zinta Aistars

Audio CD (June 24, 2008)

Price: $18.99

"Skin is just sausage we call home."

It is lines such as this that make me a brand new Larissa Shmailo fan. And I am not usually a listen-to-poetry rather than read-poetry fan. Recordings of readings seem to be "the poetic thing" these days, and that is a trend that makes sense to me. People have less time and impetus to read a book in their busy lives, but popping a CD into your car stereo during a commute, well, that's another thing. (I still prefer a book in hand, but my daily commute is long ...)

So pop in this. Shmailo's voice immediately fills your space. Not every poet or writer can read their work to others. In fact, I think I am safe in saying ... most cannot. I have been frequenting readings all my life, and I can't say how often I have been disappointed to find that what I love on the written page bores me to tears spoken aloud. Not so with Shmailo. After listening to Exorcism several times, I can still say I am wishing for the written page, but unwilling to give up the sound. Shmailo reads with so much intensity, intonation, energy, in velvety and sensual voice, that to not hear this would be a missed experience.

Another point in Exorcism's favor: this is the first such spoken poetry CD in which I can say that music, where it is present, is seamlessly joined to spoken word. It does not distract. It does not overwhelm. It does not jar. It blends, accompanies, enriches. The mood is like that of entering a dark, smoky room, falling into pillows, and riding the silky, heady wave. Shmailo is intense. She can shock, she can tickle, she can entrance.

My favorite is "Dancing with the Devil." Because it is. A mini poem leading into "How to Meet and Dance with Your Death." You can only do it once, the poet warns you. Any more than once, and you become a cheap woman sleeping with common men. The recipe is bizarre and wonderful. You very nearly want to write it down and give it a blend. Die if you must.

Shmailo poetizes devils with the same skill as she weaves words around God and Magdalene. Her poetry is as lushly sensual as it is cutting to the bone. This is about love and pain, birth and rebirth, fields of magnolias, and surviving the Warsaw ghetto. She uses words I save for special occasion without wincing, and I forgive it, because it works. The slap of shock is appropriate. This is not merely strong performance, it is also strong in substance ... which is why I long to see the written word as well. I would suggest a written copy inserted into the CD cover as a booklet to complete the treasure.

If I list a favorite, then I will also list my least favorite: the title poem, "Exorcism." Found poem, apparently, although I don't think that is what holds this one back for me. It is a rather droning, chanting monotone (about the lie and crime of war) that can't be listened to for long without grating on a nerve or two, edging on annoying. But this is not reason enough, this one, for me not to recommend Exorcism in its totality to anyone who enjoys poetry, or just an enthralling listening experience.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Inside Out Girl by Tish Cohen

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2008
Price: $13.95
ISBN-10: 0061452955
ISBN-13: 978-0061452956

Olivia refuses to allow Georgia Boy to be buried. The gerbil is stiff, dead that long, but little Olivia Bean can't quite register the idea of death. She has a learning disorder known as NLD (nonverbal learning disability, causing her to operate on a very literal level), but come to think of it ... most of us have trouble understanding death.

And so we are introduced, beginning with Olivia, to the cast of characters in Tish Cohen's Inside Out Girl. They are not so very unlike the characters in our own lives, our own families or the families of our friends. The circumstances that tangle and untangle around them are a variation on many of today's typical families. Yes, there is the divorce. And the second chance. Two families patched together with two single parents at the helm, Rachel and Len, each with their own children, trying to make things work again.

Olivia, with a disability that translates into wearing her emotional "insides" on her outside - thus the title - is really the part of the iceberg that presses its tip above water level into bright exposure. She is the inside of all of us. Only Olivia isn't any good at wearing masks ... like most of us do. She is who she is, and so she is all of us in our most tender, tucked-away insides: vulnerable, open-hearted, eager to love and be loved, eager to belong. There is a wonderful innocence and naivete about this child that makes us ache to be more real. More like her. Hearts open to life again. Even as we can also identify (and wish we didn't) with the other children in this blended family who resist being associated with "the least popular girl in school," who hasn't a clue about how to be "cool."

Inside Out Girl is a story about two broken families taking a chance at being one family. Who says it has to be less than the original? The relationship that we see develop between the parents, Rachel and Len, is built on a learning from the past. Len, Rachel observes, is all that ex David was not. David was a bit obsessive-compulsive, too neat for comfort, a bit of a dandy. He "diddled" female colleagues while keeping the creases in his trousers straight. Len, perhaps by some influence from his daughter, Olivia, is more "inside out." He has compassion, he has heart, he is and understands imperfection. And Rachel, to him, is a new hope at making the broken places in him whole again.

The rest of the cast, a crew of lively teens and their school pals, with explorations of contemporary parenting issues (Rachel is an editor for Perfect Parenting magazine, which adds a note of irony and humor to her less than perfect parenting skills), brings the story neatly into our familiar living rooms. Those of us who are parents will have dealt with at least a handful of the issues Cohen explores in this family. Quite like home.

Which isn't to say this is an easy ride. Here we see the pain of social isolation (and not just among the children), of bullying (and not just between children), of giving in to peer pressure (and not just between children). Cohen deftly balances the common with the uncommon, plays on heartstrings without sounding a violin of melodrama. If the disability discussed here is less known, although not so very different from, autism, it serves to make the reader aware of how buried we can become in social norms, the pressures to not stand out from the crowd, or to stop taking the risks required to find a more lasting happiness. While this may not be a literary classic to withstand time, it does capture this moment in time, our contemporary everyday, and perhaps in that accomplishes a moment of warming sunlight. Yes, Olivia, we do all have hearts. Even if we tuck them safely away so much of the time. This little girl helps us see that we all struggle with some bit of disability in our life-worn hearts.

Tish Cohen was interviewed in the literary ezine, The Smoking Poet, fall issue 2008, in which she talks about this novel as well as her other work, wearing a little of her own inside out. The interview gives further insight into both author and novel.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet