Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiuchie is the first novel of hers I’ve read; friends of mine rave about her previous novels, so I plan to read those, as well. I found myself very drawn to her head-on explorations of race and class in Nigeria and the U.S. The novel is also a love story about a couple, Ifemelu and Obinze, whose lives, over time, radically shift and change and by doing so, reflect the politics of the world(s) they inhabit. Very impressive, too, is the innovative use of Ifemelu’s blog about “Racial Disorder Syndrome” that’s interspersed and integrated throughout the text. I’ve not seen a blog used this way in fiction before.
I’ve also recently read Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles, which takes place in a gloomy, unnamed, Eastern European country. The nameless narrator – who is not a sympathetic character – agrees to housesit for his friend, Oskar, who’s in California getting a divorce. Oskar is obsessive-compulsive while the narrator is a slob who brings “chaos” with him wherever he goes. At the heart of the book is the question of why Oskar would ask such a messy soul to take care of his precious, obsessively neat and ordered home. The answer, when it comes, is unexpected and strange, and yet totally believable within the context of the novel. I love the non-clinical glimpses into the mind of someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I also love the fact that neither the narrator nor Oskar is a conventionally likeable character. The narrator’s voice is truly compelling, and the story that unfolds is both macabre and humorous.
Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, by Alysia Abbott, is another compelling read. Alysia lost her mother at age two, and her father, an openly gay man who was also a serious (and perpetually struggling) poet, raised her in nomadic fashion as a single dad in San Francisco during the 70s, those days of freewheeling sex among the gay community. Alysia attended poetry readings with him, learned to be fiercely independent, and played “DressUp” with her dad’s friends’ flamboyant clothes. When AIDS ravaged her father’s community, Alysia and he had to learn to cope in this new, grim landscape. I identified with both Alysia and her father: he, for his struggles with parenting while trying to remain a fully engaged writer and sexual being; her, for her life as the child of an unconventional father, trying to find her own way. Abbott, never sentimental, writes with lively, clean prose that makes the story far more heartrending than if she’d told it as a four-hankie, weepy, woe-is-me tale.
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, is another clear-sighted memoir about a struggling family, this time a Mexican family. For many years, I owned a home in Mexico, and considered it my second home (I still do). Therefore, I’m always fascinated by stories of Mexico, whose culture is so different from that of the U.S. Grande’s childhood was torn between two parents and two countries, as she followed her father to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side) – aka The U.S., where he tried to build a better life. However, her family was irrevocably fractured by poverty, distance, and alcohol. It’s a brutally honest book, lifting the curtain on a kind of Mexican family we rarely read about. Grande’s burning desire to live a radically different life from that of her family is powerful, and well realized, thankfully.
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus is a kind of horror story told in exquisite, lilting prose. A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal to adults, so that the sound of your own child’s voice can kill you. What an ingenious metaphor for the trials of raising children, whom, no matter how much you love them, will inevitably wound you at times. It’s also a metaphor for the need to truly communicate with those around you in order to survive. It’s an intellectually stimulating read, with the beautiful, underpinning horror making it emotionally stirring.
* * *
In September 2010, poet Lisa Russ Spaar started a project called “Monday’s Poem,” in which she selected and discussed a contemporary poem for the Chronicle of Higher Education Review’s poetry blog.
Her audience quickly grew, as readers gathered to share her writing meditations and enjoy gorgeous poetry. Her book, The Hide and Seek Muse, gathers together selected poems and mini-essays for a rumination on the way poetry nests inside daily moments.
“This book collects the best of these memorable micro-essays, demonstrating how a well-wrought poem speaks to our rich cultural and spiritual life.
As the title essay reveals, Spaar’s own father believed that ‘poetry was out to trick him’ and in this collection, encompassing a range of crucial poets from the formal to the experimental, Spaar gently and lovingly debunks that notion, showing us the vital place that contemporary poetry can have in the life of the mind. This is an enthralling book for poets and non-poets alike.”
To purchase a copy or learn more about The Hide and Seek Muse, visit:
Writing for Singapore Poetry, Drunken Boat founding editor Ravi Shankar describes his recent trip to Singapore to read at the American Writers Festival.
Within a complex terrain scattered with both colonial-era statues and high-tech buildings, writers from both the U.S. and Singapore sought to understand the cultural impact of history on free speech and art-making:
“Here were five American writers totally variant in terms of ethnicity and writing genre, with views as radically divergent as only a democracy might produce, speaking to a Singaporean audience who seemed to be grappling with the responsibilities and risks of free speech, who were admiring of the audacious American contributions to the arts, but who were also perplexed by a nation that can’t seem to have a civil discussion on its Senate floor.
I in turn was mesmerized by the efflorescence of this island brought to prominence by 14th century Srivijayan prince Parameswara whose idea to set up a trading port proved prescient as that remains what Singapore seems most adept at doing: assimilating and evolving.”
In the piece, Ravi Shankar also announces that he will co-edit a forthcoming collection of American and Singaporean poetry addressing the theme of “union,” with possible interpretations including mathematics, sex, and political organization.
Shankar will collaborate with poet Alvin Pang on the project, which Math Paper Press will publish in 2014. Interested in submitting? Send no more than three poems to Ravi_AT_Drunkenboat.com.
Read Ravi Shankar’s full article here:
It’s impossible to compass George Albon’s essay Aspiration (Omnidawn, 2013), which moves surprisingly, compellingly through an investigation of poetics. Perhaps one could describe Albon’s query by saying that he puts together complex patternings in which “poetry” or “poetics” are largely metaphors. The larger project seems to be to disclose—or at least briefly illumine—those potentially able to embrace instances “where the momentous and the momentary can exchange signals.” This extraordinary essay (part poetics, part memoir, part anthropology) is one section of a book-length work-in-progress called Café Multiple. I’ve never before encountered anything quite like it, and I want quite urgently to read the whole thing.
Marie Larson’s chapbook Dromeda (Goodmorning Menagerie, 2013) beguiles the reader into a not-quite-recognizable world. There are pronouns, body parts, the suggestion of narrative, but the beings that break the surface of this construction are alternately grotesque and exquisite. The poems are carefully made and tonally restrained, but the shudder between beauty and the monstrous creates a kind of involuntary momentum within the sequence: “fricative uncertainty.” It’s useful to encounter poetry like this, a poetry that calmly frightens you. Beneath the mirage-horizon, the fata morgana, that Larson envisions, the surface bumps and jostles with thoughts that live like creatures: they have minds of their own. To quote the poet, “I say it impossibly.”
Cleaning up my office, I was happy to unearth Julie Ezelle Patton’s chapbook Notes for Some (Nominally) Awake 2 (No’s Knife Productions, 2010). Such exuberance! Such resourceful play! The text works extensively around Amiri Baraka’s name (and Leroi Jones shows up too), and in that way is a tribute. But with its wild punning, use of homonyms, visual play, and etymologizing, the work is also a paean to the living, breathing dynamism of language in all its agility. (I really don’t know how to effectively quote it; the parts all dance with each other inseparably.) Though there is plenty of irreverence in Patton’s play, one can’t finish reading this chapbook without fully appreciating that one definition of “Baraka” is “gracefully bestowed spiritual energy.”
Prageeta Sharma’s Undergloom (Fence, 2013), as multiple reviews have affirmatively noted, presses on issues of difference and systems of exclusion (racial, institutional, cultural). If this sounds like politicized writing, fear not: Sharma’s work jumps right over cliché and is alive. There’s a fierceness and courage to this poetry, but it unfolds responsively, alert to all the world presents. How is it that the poetry of Undergloom can simultaneously indict and nurture? Part of Sharma’s skill has to do with her wonderful, sometimes wicked, sense of humor. Yet her humor is of a piece with the aforementioned responsiveness: even indictment comes across as an undaunted questioning.
“Where are you/going, my complete/accidental body?” asks Rosmarie Waldrop in Love, Like Pronouns (Omnidawn, 2003). I returned to this book after hearing Waldrop give a reading from it and was moved to go back and study the whole book again. What captures me is the way the poems both live embodiment and observe it. The odd little remove between these two states is what brings Waldrop’s poems their unexpected emotional force (“or balance of message and/slow/says the body”). I find myself wondering: how does a poem create itself as so alive with body (and often the erotic) while at the same time so provocatively alive with the self-possession of the mind alive with its idea?
The tables have turned, Shira Dentz.
Today we’re proud to note that our book review editor’s recent poetry collection, door of thin skins, received thoughtful recognition by The Rumpus. Reviewer Nicole Walker writes:
“The book is so collected, so much of a consistent persona and a palpable narrative, it may well be a book of prose except for these metaphorical magic tricks. I picture the speaker on stage, stepping into a hoop, pulling up cloth around herself and turning from a bird into a pocket.”
Read the rest of the book review for Shira Dentz’s door of thin skins: http://therumpus.net/2013/12/door-of-thin-skins-by-shira-dentz/
Read Shira Dentz’s take on Drunken Boat book reviews: