Monday, January 26, 2009

The Fractured World by Scott Owens (poems)

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 79 pages
· Publisher: Main Street Rag, 2008
· Price: $14.00
· ISBN-10: 1599481200
· ISBN-13: 978-1599481203

I’ve worn my pencil down to the nub. When reading a book with a review in mind, I usually have one near, making notes in margins, making a check by a particularly interesting line, drawing a row of x’s—the more x’s, the better the line—when something strikes me as particularly fresh and interesting.

Scott Owens, send more pencils.

I’ve made x’s, I’ve drawn circles, I’ve drawn faces with raised eyebrows and open Os for mouths, I’ve punched holes through pages from too many exclamation points. Perhaps I should have simply set the book down on the table and placed a circle of stones around it with an arrow drawn pointing in: read this.

Here’s why: Owens is that rare poet that chokes the very word out of you that you weren’t sure how to pronounce. Or didn’t have the courage to try. He writes the phrase you were searching for in that perfect moment. He finds the face you were trying to avoid in the mirror and pastes it right here, on this page, and this one, and this. I’m not even sure if I love this poet’s work or fear its nakedness. We are all exposed. The Norman in every one of us.

I come to escape the absence
of home, the blank spots
on the wall, the empty
chairs, the lack of voices.

Owens brings his voice where there is a lack of voices and fills the space with a precise understanding of the complexities and simplicities of the human condition. If a good poet is more than one part psychologist, Owens is that and also one part priest, offering redemption, and yet another part drinking buddy, crying into your whiskey right along with you, and still another part child, the one left behind on the playground, who never forgets, not even when he becomes top executive.

We are the heirs
of all that come before us
pushing and pulling
one wanting strength
one wanting intelligence
all wanting whatever
they miss most in themselves.

Owens’ language is not so much beautiful (it is simple and near-to-the-bone clean of pretty adjective or wistful metaphor) as it is perceptive. His style is the common man’s clear speech, not messing around with ribbons and bows, but rarely missing a target. In one of his unadorned greats, “The Human Condition,” the poet writes what we all silently know:

We are, none of us,
who we think we are,
bolder, more foolish,
heart heaving on the pulse
of caffeine, sugar,
one addiction or another,
noble, persistent,
constantly drunk on
scotch, breasts, laughter
of the three year old,
incontinent, inventive,
tending to elders, pets,
rainforests, ourselves,
anything endangered,
indecisive, rude, unrelenting.
We plan for, struggle against,
cry about and welcome the end.
One last breath and then
gone from this world.

In another poem, Owens inserts pithy truths, no bones about it:

Some people kill themselves
with the lives they lead, others with the lives they don’t.

You only have two choices really.
You can get busy living
or you can get busy dying.

And then there is the Norman series. Norman? He is you. And me. The guy next door, your best buddy, your worst enemy, your boss, the cop on the corner, your fifth grade math teacher, he is nobody and he is everybody. Owens devotes an entire section, “Suite Norman,” to poems about Norman, and very soon, with a wince, you recognize him. Even when you wish you didn’t. The titles alone will tell you Norman’s story: “Norman’s Storm Fear,” “Norman Learns How Not to Cry,” “Norman Warms to the Idea of Love,” “Norman’s Enormous Thing,” “Norman Dreaming,” “Norman Has a Change of Heart,” and so on, until Norman’s life ends as too many of ours do and will. With a whimper.

Read for yourself. Random Norman lines:

…you’ll learn to whisper what you feel
so far under your breath
that even you won’t hear it,
you’ll learn to turn
what flutters in your chest
to a cold stone beating
in the palm of your hand.

("Norman Learns How Not to Cry")

Norman pinches the women he loves,
tugs at their hair and hands,
talks like a child, his lips
protruding, words stretched out,
calls them nothing but baby.
With his sons he punches
their arms, applies headlocks
and dry shaves, calls them boy
no matter their age,
and speaks of nothing but baseball.
Uncertain how to be intimate
without seeming silly, Norman
has learned how comfort can be
found in hurting those he loves.
He hopes they can learn how love
abounds in uncomfortable acts.
(“Uncertain How to be Intimate Without Being Silly”)

Norman at work all day
earning a living as if he had to.
Norman leaving at the bell,
coming home the same way,
careful to obey each light
and sign. Norman at home,
watching the news as if he had to,
uncertain he believes what he sees,
uncertain whose children he holds,
whose hands hold them.
Norman bored in bed with his wife,
finding nothing to say,
nothing to remember,
nothing to look forward to.
Norman alone in the bar,
quiet in the corner,
watching faces watching
faces in the mirror…

Norman on the bridge at 3 a.m.
wondering where the water goes,
where it comes from,
how much he might be missing.
(“Norman Everyday”)

Norman will tell you
he likes women,
but that’s not entirely true.
He likes women the way
he likes children and dogs,
mostly quiet,
mostly soft or playful,
mostly the way
he wants them to be,
mostly there
only when he wants them to be.
(“Likes and Dislikes”)

Fractured mirror piece after piece, splinter beside splinter, building the image of a lifetime, Owen builds the portrait of Norman, from child hiding beneath a table during a storm, to elderly man, the creepy one you see at the mall ogling women, girls, half his age. He shows us this man in his isolated loneliness, his chest aching with a heart that longs to feel, yet is too closed off to remember how. His every day is a slow suicide. Owens holds up the mirror without mercy.

By the time I read the last poem in Owens’ book, I know Norman as well as I’ve known anyone, everyone. Yet Owen also has managed more than a few revelatory moments, with lines about fathers and sons, men among men, talking about nothing but baseball—this is not the male bonding we pretend sports are, perhaps, as much as it is a lack of ability to talk about anything else that might be more intimate. The great American Male mask? And when Norman dies in the final poem, at last able to open that clenched hand that in life never learned to hold gently, but in death at long last unclenches to hold rain, sunlight, wind, and then, to let it all go—I could, too. However reluctantly. My pencil worn to the nub. Just enough of it left to scribble a note tucked into its pages for a friend, “Read this.”

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Heaven-Sent Leaf (poems) by Katy Lederer

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 72 pages
Publisher: BOA Editions Ltd. (October 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1934414158
ISBN-13: 978-1934414156

What do poets know of money? What do poets know of capital? Katy Lederer asks and answers such questions in “A Nietzschean Revival” and throughout her new collection of poetry, The Heaven-Sent Leaf. And why not the poet, perhaps the best stockbroker of all in tendering the crumpled and transparent leaves of the spirit, exhibited here as expert in capital. Life is, after all, all about transaction, barter, the give and take between human beings, or between oneself and oneself—the hardest bargain of all.

Katy Lederer, poet and author, is also….


To learn to keep distance.
To learn to keep drear managerial impulse away from the animal mind.
Along the dark edge of this reason. Along the dark edge of this mind’s little prison,
inside of its bars now a silky white cat.
Crawling in its little cage.
Inside of its cage is the bright light of morning.
Inside of its cage is the light of disease.
To learn to be an animal. To learn to be that primal.
To know who will slip you the fresh dish of milk.
To long for your manager’s written approval.
So soon am I up for my year-end review?
The moon above settles into its shadow.
I am howling at you.

Lederer titles more than one poem, “Brainworker.” There are four of them, in fact. And so you begin to sense the spinning we do in our every day routines, work work work, and then home, and then work work work, and all of it about transaction, some profitable, some not. This collection is money (transaction) put into poetry, and if at first glance that seems an odd fit, Lederer proves the fit is very near like that of a glove.

To know something of Lederer’s background explains this fascination. She is also author of several books, notably a memoir, Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers (Crown, 2003), included on Publishers Weekly list of Best Nonfiction Books of 2003, which tells of her family ties to some of the best known names and faces around Las Vegas poker tables. For the poet, it could just as well have gone the other way, to becoming a card shark, but instead, her pull is toward poetry, even while working as a “brainworker” at a hedge fund in New York City.

I can’t speak for her poker-playing skills, no doubt remarkable, but Lederer’s poetry chinks into place, has the solid feel of coin on a green felt table, and slips easily into a rich bank of poetic capital. There are plenty of lines such as, “In the wallet of his soul he files the crisp new bills of morning,” (from “The Tender Wish to Buy This World”) to keep the analogy flowing. And they work, mostly. Although it doesn’t take many pages in to already sense the Lederer style: a naming of observations, almost a grocery list at times (“To avoid the whole mendacious thing./To sign yet another financial release.”); fragmented sentences and phrases (“Orange-red eyes like small, derogatory suns.” “Not wanting to do.” “Systemic and assembles with great calm.”); questions without answers (“We can’t let go? Why are we laughing now?”). This is not an entirely bad thing, not at all. A writer, a poet, seeks to find one’s own recognizable voice. A reader can find in it an agreeable echo, a mirror to one’s own, and so become a fan. The line to toe here is to not become overly predictable, still leaving room for the occasional surprise.

Lederer’s use of the analogy of money as capital to be traded in for pieces and parts of life does not narrow her range. With this premise, she explores the topics all poets adore: love, sex (what more profound transaction!), the daily aspects of a life well or less well lived, and, finally, death. She sets her stage against the backdrop of the big city, but the big city clamor still reverberates against any landscape where people meet. Money is a great symbol and so is not limiting, no more than she who possesses it imbues it with meaning and power. The exchange of value for value, or value for lack of it, resounds through every line, and with it, the echo of a void inside the self, “the lobotomized wishes—/Where brains once were …/Hear the awful racket of their want.”

This is a collection of poetry that jingles in the mind like loose coins in a deep pocket long after read. You’ll pardon the analogy stretched here, but it is accurate. If on first reading, the poems seem simple enough, almost predictable in style (list-fragment-question), you can’t help but find your fingers wandering the linings of that pocket and playing with the coins, testing their value, enjoying the jingle, rubbing them one against the other, until they are warm in the palm and ready for trade. Lederer’s poetry is a good value.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Real Reason the Queen Hated Snow by Annette Marie Hyder

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 168 pages
· Publisher: Twilight Times Books, 2007
· Price: $16.95
· ISBN-10: 1933353872
· ISBN-13: 978-1933353876

The Real Reason the Queen Hated Snow by Annette Marie Hyder is a collection of short stories, poems, recipes and essays. For the most part, all are built on and around the feminine (and feminist) experience, and the structure is reminiscent of fairy tales and fables, folklore and mythology. At the end of many of these pieces are citations, short explanations, recommended reading.

Hyder is knowledgeable about her sources and about the ideals of feminism. As a feminist myself, I appreciate the message and, quite often, the delivery in this collection. We see the strength that is uniquely a woman’s; we see the comfort and nurturing she offers; we see the feminine spirit and why it keeps the world turning. We also see glimpses of the pain Woman has endured through the ages, and the survival skills she has learned in order to evade, as Hyder calls that force in various pieces, “the predator.” And we also have recipes, like grandmother’s challah bread, and Big Mama’s recipe for “moon pie,” for we are spirit and mind, but body, too.

Sharing many of Hyder’s views, I found here much to enjoy, and I also identifying with many of the experiences explored and described. There are the broken hearts, but also the rising up again, the limitless ability to love and with it, hand in hand, the struggle to forgive the unforgivable. While perhaps the fairy tales moved me least, the essays describing such heroines as Mukhtaran Mai, in “The Strength of Stones,” left an indelible impression. The latter is a true story about a Pakistani woman whose people attempted to stone her to death in atonement for, not her own, but her brother’s sins, and later gang raped her, for the same reason. The woman’s response is one of awe-inspiring survival, but also a rising up from such injustice to build the village’s first school for girls, creating great good from great evil. Because knowledge is power, and Mukhtaran understood that revenge is short-lived, but to provide education to her sisters was a long-term and much more effective solution.

“She has become polished obsidian for other women to see themselves within. And her name has become a stone in the hands of women far and wide and around this world—Mukhtaran Mai. Her name has become a stone in the collective fist of resistance raised against silence and humiliation. And her name has become the rush and sound of water—running its course to freedom.”

So Hyder inspires her readers, sometimes with stories of global reach, other times with a personal poem that is hers alone, yet reflects and mirrors similar facets in all women. The mix is ever changing, and this may indeed by the collection’s only weak spot … yet one I would hope the author might consider carefully, should there be any reprint forthcoming of the book. There is so much value here, and good writing, and strong stories, yet the overall effect tends to get lost for lack of a solid framework. The overall effect is, instead, one of disorganization, and at times it can be jarring. The reader moves from a poem to a recipe to a fairy tale to an essay, and each one may have a very different tone and voice and message. The very same pieces, arranged within a more logical flow (the life stages of a woman’s life? the rooms in a woman’s home and what each contains? the various roles a woman plays? international lines?) Any number of themes might work to give the collection a sense of connection, moving the reader along.

This collection, however flawed or missing its framework, holds much treasure for the reader willing to wander. I appreciate the extra notes, the recommended reading, the links and information about several very worthy causes addressed in the stories, should one wish to do more than simply turn a page and read.

Annette Marie Hyder is the literature editor for InTheFray Magazine. Her poetry has been translated into German, Italian, Dutch and Spanish, included in numerous anthologies and published in book form. Her articles appear in print throughout the United States and internationally, and she is the founder and curator of the international feminist project Facing Feminism: Feminists I Know. Cover artwork of this book is by Kurt Ozinga.