AQ8 Autumn Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte
Fairyland by Alysia Abbott, W.W. Norton and Company, 978-0-393-08252-4, 326 pages
Sylvia is Missing, Flarestack Poets Pamphlet Competition Anthology 2012, 978-1-906480-34-9, 32 pages.
Heartwrecks by Nicolas Destino, Sibling Rivalry Press, 978-1-937420-35-2, 82 pages.
Butcher’s Sugar by Brad Richard, Sibling Rivalry Press, 978-1-937420-25-3, 71 pages.
Little Blue Man, verse by Clive Watkins and photos by Susan de Sola, Seabiscuit Press, 978-9-082081-30-5, 29 pages.
Three publications from my mailbag, one book that caught my eye in the American Book Center, and one which I received personally from an editor this summer are the subject of this issue’s book reviews. The cover of Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, (by San Francisco photographer Robert Pruzan) caught my eye because it has the same cover photo her father, Steve, used in 1980 for his poetry book, Stretching the Agape Bra, which I received from him when I lived just a block away in Haight-Ashbury. Steve died from HIV AIDS 12 years later, as did two dozen of my friends and acquaintances in the late 80s/early 90s.
Fairyland is a memoir; well, actually two memoirs. The first is of her father captured through commentaries on selected journal entries and poems, and the second, her own record of her psychological and artistic development as she grew up with her gay father in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in the 1970s and 80s and attended the prestigious French School. Ms Abbott and her father had moved to San Francisco in 1974 after the death of her mother in an automobile accident in Georgia when Alysia was three. During her childhood in San Francisco, Ms. Abbott was entrusted to a series of unconventional baby sisters (drag queens, her father’s boyfriends, neighbours, children of housemates, etc.), some more reliable than others, so that Steve would have time to write. As a result, Alysia virtually ended up raising herself similar to Dharma Finkelstein’s situation in the popular television comedy series, Dharma and Greg. In addition, her domicile shifted annually between the cramped poverty of the one-bedroom, Haight-Ashbury apartment she shared with her father and the relative financial and spatial suburban comfort of her maternal grandparents home in Kankakee, Illinois where she spent her summer holidays. As a result, she became painfully aware at a very young age of how different her family life was compared with that of her classmates and her relatives and of the secrets she needed to keep from both.
Having known both Ms Abbott and her father personally, (I wrote my UC Berkeley honours thesis about the shamanistic tendencies in Robert Duncan’s, Aaron Shurin’s and Steve Abbott’s poetry and published Steve’s work in No Apologies, my literary magazine, in the mid-1980s), I can vouch for the veracity and authenticity of Ms Abbott’s account. In addition, her writing style is clear and concise thus making it a pleasure to read. Her memoir is well-illustrated with photos of Ms Abbott with her father and his poetry and cartoons. Unexpected pleasures for me in her book were her descriptions of her pre- and post-San Francisco years in Atlanta, Georgia and New York and Paris and her journey with her father in 1983 to Paris and Amsterdam where he read at poetry festivals. Even though I thought I knew Steve Abbott fairly well from the information I had gathered for my thesis, I was not aware how great his desire was to live in Paris, (Alysia eventually spread his ashes there), nor of his open relationship with Ms Abbott’s mother. In addition, Ms Abbott’s description of the 1980s AIDS crisis in San Francisco and the illnesses and deaths of her father and many of his friends, shows her ability to merge the personal with the historical and political which, I believe, would have made her father immensely proud of her.
Sylvia is Missing is an anthology of 21 poems selected from those submitted to Flarestack Poets for its 2012 Pamphlet Competition. Flarestack is based in Birmingham, UK and is edited by Meredith Andrea and Jacqui Rowe. Sylvia contains short, imagistic poems of one page or less. These are sometimes presented with a natural/outdoor setting, with characters walking or jogging along canals (typical of the waterways being restored in central England) at the beach or even speculating on the lost meaning of the town place names (i.e. trap grounds in a poem of the same name by Stephen Wilson). Some poems explore the changing relationships with partners and children or how life’s mundane matters hinder or restrain, “our pockets full of things/that hold us down,” (from “Beach Sofa” by Oliver Comins), and, of course, the perennial inadequacy of education or language to prepare one for or to communicate about life’s uncertainties.
One very different poem in Sylvia is Missing is “Aquarium” by Michael Conley about a man whose stomach is an aquarium, and the resulting drama which enfolds. It reminds me of some of Steve Abbott’s surrealist/absurdist poems. A doctor’s advice after examining the man “to drink as much as he pisses/and avoid contact sports” also demonstrates Conley’s sense of humour. “A Stretch of Water” by Gordon Dargie shows the tension involved in arriving late for a delayed ferry, only to find once on onboard, that it has to remain in dock for hours waiting for the tide to come in. It also contains an oblique reference to Psalm 137, “By the waters we sat down and waited//as the name of the river spread on the tide.” The poem, “For the she-ass, Lise”, by Gina Wilson is about a troublesome, barnyard donkey behaving badly whose “two foot pizzel/dangles like liquorice,” and whose shriek “scatters hens,/geese, guinea-fowl” and who at evening, “hooves in the earth” her “folly stands like ebony” against the stars. Wilson has a keen eye for description and this enables her to transform the earthly ordinary into the celestial extraordinary in the space of 17-lines.
The attractive graphic design of Sylvia is Missing and indeed the rest of the Flarestack chapbook series is also worth mentioning. Poems are set in Garamond type on clean, heavy stock, cream-coloured paper. Covers (produced using what editor Meredith Andrea refers to as a “template”) include just the publisher’s and poet’s names and book’s title set in a large, sans serif font on eye catching, delicious background colours such café latte brown, blueberry and lemon lime. The Flarestack poetry chapbooks are a welcome addition to my library of contemporary European anthologies and publishers and I highly recommend this press and its books to my readers.
Heartwrecks by Nicolas Destino is a book of poetry whose style reminds me both of the work of Getrude Stein, especially, Portraits and Prayers, because of its recirculation words and phrases to create new meanings and infuse rhythm into the description of a person and/or a scene. Its style also reminds me of the LANGUAGE Poets project, (whom Ms. Abbott coincidentally mentions in her memoir reviewed above) because the recirculated words are sometimes/somewhat disjunct and the text forces the reader to construct his/her own narrative.
An example of this rhythmic recirculation can be seen in Mr. Destino’s poem “Yet.” “Safe because it may not happen safe/ as in I am safe and we are safe/ in safety for the sake of not being kicked.” An example of creating your own narrative can be found in the first line of “Palimpest” “If today your find yourself deleted from the map drive invisibily toward the office of urban planning despite the centuries of names already established for you.” You need to be quick and nimble to construct a narrative from that. Other poems which travel at a somewhat slower pace are “Resurrection,” the book’s first poem which reminds me of e.e. cummings’ moon poems which usually referred to distant, unobtainable, ridiculous or unbelievable love or “Healing Process:” “My digestive system works better if I eat this type of yogurt/one year after his funeral I don’t bother to use a spoon/just let it reach room temperature and somewhat drink it/ from the cup.” Some of Destino’s images will strike a cord with most renters in poor neighbourhoods such as in The Conductor is Waiting:” “Your apartment comes with fists and oven grease” or urban commuters experience of isolation and exposure to crime.
Destino’s verse is not for lightweights. The reader definitely needs to bring something to the table to be able to make something out of this poetry. (In the spirit of full-disclosure I am within the camp of the San Francisco New Narrative writers and not the Language Poets due to my believe that plot and thematic elements need to be foregrounded and accessible to all readers on at least one level).
Another book from Sibling Rivalry Press which is more “my cup of tea” due to its more conventional narrativity is Brad Richard’s Butcher’s Sugar. This book uses Greek mythological and Christian images to poetically describe (and sometimes eroticize) events/passages in the author’s childhood, teenage and adulthood years. Some of these events/passages (either real or imagined) include being naked in one’s yard and neighbourhood as in “Aubaude, ” and his growing awareness of his alienation from other teenagers due to being gay, as in “A Changeling,” and “The Child and His Monsters.” Richard’s poetry can be sensual, mythological or religious or sometimes a combination of these elements. In Butcher’s Sugar, for example, the book’s title poem, the narrator describes his body’s “candied peristyle and sticky portals.” In “Dead Tongues,” he imagines the god Hermes “Kissing a drowsy boy,” (other poems include Ganymede and Narcissus) and in “Mater Dolorosa,” a church “where I never go.”
The best poem in this collection, “Eye Fucking,” is the artistic recreation of the murder of a gay man, Nicholas West, told through a monologue by one of his murderers, Donald Aldrich. Emotionally, the poem is difficult to read, but on a purely aesthetic level, it describes the murder in vivid detail—how the victim acted and how the two murderers showed no mercy to a man who couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back. Unrepentant at the end of the poem, Aldrich says: “If it happened all over again and I had a choice,/I’d do it all the same.” Perhaps poetry like this, which shows the deadly consequences of intolerance, helped change the political climate in America to the point that same-sex civil rights and marriages were upheld this summer by the US Supreme Court (though most states have decided not to grant rights or perform or recognize marriages at their level of jurisdiction.)
Richard’s poetry believes in “The Body, The Word,” where the body is the door to the spiritual mystery, the ineffable and indescribable: “the body/found itself between words, its image/the unreadable space” is perhaps his strongest and most persistent theme. This sensual transcendence is described again in his last poem, “Envoi” but with a more creative use of line breaks and description of the natural world. “Slowly the rain/thinks : / jamine/ thistle/withered fingers/of the poinsettia/budding—“ This is a type of poetic expression which I hope Mr. Richards will continue to pursue in the future.
Little Blue Man is an artistic collaboration between poet Clive Watkins and photographer, Susan de Sola (AQ5). In this book, the little blue man, (a Thunderbirds’ action figure from the 1960s television series of the same name), is placed in different situations—hanging in a Christmas tree, lying on his side at the bottom of a whiskey bottle, or pushing a silver pram across a mantle. Watkins has written a poem that complements de Sola’s photos. Here is part of what he writes to accompany a photo of the little blue man looking at his reflection in a Christmas tree ornament: “With what rapt attention must he view himself,/ diminutive Narcissus forced by the goddess of this place/ to hang among those faux pine-boughs!” Or his description of the little blue man lying at the bottom of what seems to be a bubble-trapped, hand-blown, glass bowl looking up as if he were right side up and walking towards the viewer: “Dashing homunculus of blue and dauntless eye,/ intrepid fingerling, dainty portable hero,/ stiff little plastic Galahad great of heart, steadfast pocket-deliverer, how did he fetch up here/translated into our world with its pitiless light?…” Little Blue Man is playful yet artistic, something for both adults and children perhaps to read together, children for the photos, adults for the verse.