AQ 17 Autumn 2016 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte
Dig by Bryan Borland, Stillhouse Press, ISBN 978-0-9905169-8-9, 2016, 74 pages.
Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana. Stories by Jacob M. Appel, Black Lawrence Press, ISBN 978-1-62557-953-9, 2016, 2016, 182 pages.
Lost Salmon by Scott T. Starbuck, MoonPath Press, ISBN 978-1-93665-723-0, 2016, 96 pages.
Seldom do I have the opportunity to review three books in the same issue, all of which, I can recommend to my readers unreservedly. This is one of those rare occasions. The three authors and their books above are three of the best, but still relatively “new,” writers. Each has his special areas of interest and unique style for which I believe American writing is that much richer.
The first book Dig, is a collection of poems by writer, editor and publisher Bryan Borland. Borland was recently recognised by the Library of Congress for the contribution of his press, Sibling Rivalry, to American letters. Dig’s poems are primarily about Borland’s life as a gay man living in Midwestern America. The title poem or proem is an invitation to readers to dig “the dirt” about his last “ten years,” his “two dogs,” “past lovers” and his “husband,” about the things each brought to their unique literary relationship “ink…books from other tribes” but “nothing from what we are together.”
The book is divided into three sections: “A Form of that Word,” “These Boys” and “Blood in the Throat.” The first section is about Borland’s long-term relationships with his partner and friends. There are poems about anniversaries, “The Body is a Damn Hard Thing to Kill,” betrayal, both real and imagined, “Weather, This” and “Cheated,” and the remembrance and death of family and friends such as “Walking Through the Fields of Ruin” and “How it Ends.” The second section describes other gay lives; those who did or did not make it; some through suicide such as in “Jumpers” or murder such as “The Significance of Matthew” about Matthew Shepherd’s murder or marriage such as “White handkerchief,” in the series “These Boys” in which Borland writes how his partner’s “Old flames, too, leaking into his dreams/puddles of memory that never quite evaporate.” The third section, “Blood in the Throat,” is perhaps my favourite because it includes poems about poets and writers such as Thom Gunn, “Eat the Whole World,” Ian Young, “From Ian Young,” Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, “This Telepathy is Intrusive,” Christopher Isherwood “Isherwood’s Journals” and William Carlos Williams “This is What It’s Like” and their influences on Borland’s and/or his partner Seth Pennington’s writing.
Three of the poems I wish I’d written myself can be found in this third section. One is “Your Older Brother Gives Me My Name” in which Borland describes his partner’s relatives’ awkwardness about what to call him at a wedding until his partner’s brother says: “he’s my brother-in-law.” Another is “At a Bach Concert” in which just as Borland and his partner walk into a Boston church and “lock arms and start toward the front of the church,/the quartet begins to play the wedding march for/absolutely no reason—and for absolutely every reason.” And lastly, the poem “Rooster” about the puppy that Borland writes: “I grow to love him by the second week, when you and I/have figured out how to touch/one another again.” brings him closer to his partner again.
Dig provides a poetic, honest look at a mature gay relationship. It also demonstrates how, in just a short time, Borland’s poetry has gone from strength to strength since his debut book, My Life as Adam (2010), his subsequent, Less Fortunate Pirates (2012) to Dig (2016) This opinion is confirmed by Borland’s receipt of the 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award.
Jacob M. Appel’s book, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana. Stories is his third collection from Black Lawrence Press. His book Scouting for the Reaper (2014), won the Hudson Prize. (Appel is also an O. Henry Prize winner). Appel is one of American’s best short story writers due to his combination of quirky characters and unexpected, snap endings. Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana merely confirms this reputation.
Appel is a master of characterisation. He seamlessly crawls under the skin of his cast characters, who live and work in various jobs and in various parts of the US. Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana includes stories about a female butcher and her murderous concert violinist sister, an East Coast folk singer celebrity and her very destructive, delinquent grandson, a smallpox scare for two guards on the US Canadian border on a snowy New Years Eve, who think they might be in love, an Oakland, California landlord whose wife leaves him for a mime and then won’t talk to him, two New York parents whose infant suffers from pica and an unfaithful minister who can’t sleep at night because he imagines his dead wife noisily making love downstairs to Greta Garbo are some of the many interesting situations and unusual characters in Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana.
However odd these characters seem, though, they all seem to deal with various common themes: fidelity, the value of continued friendship versus sexual intimacy, the limits of friendships and relationships within and without families, and how these families cope with the bad behavioural genes and patterns that are passed down the generations. Appel explores these themes and problems and comes up with very novel, unexpected, snap solutions usually based more on utilitarianism than lofty philosophy. The focus to detail in these stories about medical and ethical situations and their solutions shows Appel’s own wide range of professional experience as a doctor, bioethicist, professor and writer. In addition, no matter how dark the thematic material, the stories in Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana are written with a sense of wit and humour which propels the reader forward to their uncanny resolutions. Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana proves that Appel is a master of the American short story, (in a somewhat American Gothic, Edgar Allen Poe-like tradition). He explores the depths of human experience in unusual cases while still maintaining a sense of humanity. Coulrophobia’s stories surprise, shock, entertain and challenge.
Scott T. Starbuck latest book of poetry is entitled Lost Salmon and even though all the poems in this collection are about fishing, there is something in this collection to interest just about everyone. One of the most important issues Starbuck depicts relevant to AQ17 is climate (change)/species extinction. Many poems in Lost Salmon would have been ideal for AQ17 had they not previously been published in other journals or were pending publication in this collection which was released a few weeks before AQ17’s own debut. These poems include “Strays” and “At Rocky Creek” about diverted or blocked salmon runs. In “Strays” the “salmon who run up the wrong river,” end up “in ditches, cow pastures, even Hwy 101.” In “At Rocky Creek,” the salmon’s progress is blocked by a concrete wall under which they are “floating belly up.” In the book’s title poem, “Lost Salmon,” Starbuck writes: “I can relate, brother/as I gasp smog,” perhaps to the salmon he’s caught who are “wanting waters with my own kind” and to “just be.”
“In River at 52,” the fisherman in Starbuck knows he needs the river just as much as the salmon: “I know if I can just get to the river, everything will be okay.” He relates the flow of the current to the passage of time and the relatives and partner he’s lost and perhaps the real reason he needs to get to the river after he’s graded “…stack after stack after stack/from men and women who don’t want to write/who force themselves into strange unnatural positions.” (This sentiment is also echoed in “Advice to a Student” in which he gives counsel to get down to the business of poetry: “If you want an audience/go into advertising” and ends this short poem with the advice that a bird “doesn’t wait/ for an audience/ to sing.”)
In “Canyon” and “My River” Starbuck worries how rising temperatures from human-made climate change will destroy some of his favourite fishing spots. Lastly, in “Pigeon,” he initially describes his cynicism about individual efforts to stop climate change as he saves a pigeon left for dead by other fisherman “torn by fishing line” by taking her to the vet:
“A few weeks later when she flew away
it gave me hope against all odds
we can slow a warming climate, rising seas.”
emphasising perhaps his enduring belief in the power of compassion to change things.
The poems in the collection are also about other subjects related to fishing. “Meditation on Emptiness between Universes,” describes the healing, revitalising effect fishing has on Starbuck. It takes him to a place “under evergreen shade and birdsong” where he breakfasts on “hotcakes/and blueberry tea.” A riverside meditation is also included in “Drifting Out of my Body in the Dark Somewhere near Astoria, Oregon.” In this the fisherman expresses his awareness of the interconnectedness of life, “tiny human gill slits/in the womb when all these salmon/were his brothers and sisters.” There are also a few surprises he discovers along the way like in “Underwater Piano and Eagle,” the piano, perhaps abandoned by pioneers, or the two lovers he accidentally stumbles across in “The Folks I Surprised In Drift Creek” in which the poet describes how:
“…in remote wilderness
I saw sex—arms and legs in the way
like when these creatures had finned hunger
and nothing else—“
In addition to the moving poems in this book, Lost Salmon is complemented by beautiful artwork. Its cover is a blue-green, mixed media piece on wood by Jennifer Williams entitled “Hooked.” The dedication page has a pencil sketch of a salmon by Herb Welch. Lost Salmon is certainly a book that will be treasured by many—fishers, environmentalists, writing teachers, and naturalist-oriented readers—among others. AQ