Bryan R. Monte — Spring 2014 AQ9 Book Reviews

Amsterdam Quarterly (AQ9) Spring 2014 Book Reviews by Bryan R. Monte

One Day Tells its Tale to Another by Nonnie Augustine, The Linnet’s Wings, ISBN 978-1480186354, 90 pages.
Poland at the Door by Evelyn Posamentier, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, ISBN 978-1-907812-69-9, 48 pages.
The Satirist, America’s Most Critical Book, Volume 1, by Dan Geddes, Omin Press, ISBN 978-90-819997-0-0, 180 pages.
The Wolf Inside by Donald Gardner, Hearing Eye, ISBN 978-1-905082-71-1, 56 pages.

Four books landed in my mailbag this quarter that I thought were worth reviewing in Amsterdam Quarterly. Two are by writers living in Amsterdam and the other two are by poets who make their AQ debut in this issue. In total there are three books of poetry and one collection of satirical essays, poetry, reviews and stories. In addition, three of the books were printed in the European Union.

I’ll begin with Amsterdam resident Dan Geddes’ The Satirist, America’s Most Critical Book, Volume 1, a collection of his satirical essays, poems and stories some which have appeared online on his website at www.thesatirist.com. In his book, Geddes satirically criticizes cults, politics, religion, wealth, taxes, self-help, etc.—the usual suspects. For example, Geddes book begins with a satirical essay, “The Seven Habits of Highly Efficient Cult Leaders,” the title reminiscent Steve Covey’s very popular self-help book.  Geddes’ seven traits include for example, grooming, delegation (“delegate all undesirable tasks,”) time management (“do not waste time on trivial personages within the cult,”) etc. He also mentions the importance of a First Disciple: (“(F)ind someone who believes in you implicitly… who is willing to walk through fire for you and who will hopefully be unfazed by the frequent contradictions you will be uttering.” Geddes mentions the ideal place to start a cult—a college campus—and to promise answers to life’s most vexing questions.

Geddes continues this contemporary satire with his “A Modest Proposal to Convert Shopping Malls into Prisons,” a nod to Jonathan Swift. He argues that using the malls will cut construction costs, guards can easily mount monitoring equipment and guns from the upper floors and skylights and merchants would easily profit from increased sales, especially from prisoners who couldn’t leave and who would be forced to feed themselves at the mall’s food courts. His calculation of 25k per prisoner per year he says would save US authorities 15K per year.

Other pieces in The Satirist include “Are You a Conspiracy Theorist? Take the Test” and Geddes’ reviews or reports of imaginary news, books and movies (the latter including, for example, Quentin Tarantino’s “Scent of a Banknote,” and Disney’s “1984” and “Animal Farm”). The Satirist is a book that, despite your religious or political background, will not fail to elicit at least a laugh or two.

Donald Gardner is an Englishman and Amsterdam resident. His book, The Wolf Inside, is a collection of 32 poems that describe his life in Amsterdam and England from the viewpoint of a mature poet. The Amsterdam poems include “Moonrise,” “In the Vondelpark,” “New Plans,” “Lady with a Little Dog,” “In the Berenstraat,” Those about the vicissitudes of growing old are, among others, “Reading the Poet as his Poetry,” “Kept Alive by Modern Medicine,” “Under the Weather,”and “Angela will see to my Correspondence,” which begins with the lines: “When I’m dead/I won’t need to meet any deadlines” or “Fear of Writing” the first two stanzas of which are: “The pollution of the white page/the lewdness//exposing myself to the world/best to keep it to myself” or “Old Age Express: “Getting older/I move slower//but my life/runs out faster.” Gardner’s strong poetic openings are definitely attention getters and his use of the short line, especially in “Morning Shift,” “Nothing on TV,” “Blown up by my own Time-saving Device,” “Retirement Benefits,” and “Old Age Express” show Gardner at his best. The Wolf Inside is a book that will inform poets and readers of all ages, but especially those who want to know more about an ex-pat’s life in Amsterdam.

The second book of poetry is Evelyn Posamentier’s Poland at the Door. It is a collection of short (one to six line) poems, each beginning with the title of the book. Poland can be read (as I did) as a sort of psychological exploration of the tenuous existence of that country (especially in the last two centuries due to repeated incursions by its German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian neighbours). The book has a very attractive cover design with a sepia map entitled: “Poland 1814” in a green frame on a cream background. (Unfortunately the book’s cover designer is not mentioned in the credits). What I interpret as invasion anxiety, for example, is exemplified in this short segment: “this is not a dream/Belarus is next door./ i invite minsk in./ oh, god I’ve left/ the door unlocked.” It also portrays the paranoia due to surveillance often found in the literature of Eastern bloc states: “just don’t answer it/it’s no one you know./ the ring of the phone/ alone in its secret code./ my code of madness/ like yours my friend.” Even the natural world seems oppressive: “the clouds with their sky/press against the door.” And its conclusion is an eerie confrontation of the past with the present: “the footsteps have followed history/into the town square./ they have passed. Posamentier’s collection of short poems is artistically arresting. It is a little book worth having if one is interested in writing very short, psychological poems that revolve around one theme or subject.

One Day Tells its Tale to Another is a book of poetry written by Nonnie Augustine who makes her AQ debut in this issue. Augustine is a former ballet dancer who co-founded the Albuquerque Dance Theatre, taught at the University of New Mexico and who later became a special education teacher. One Day Tells its Tale to Another is an interesting collection of poems, the most powerful of which are those that describe the natural world and European locations with an eye for detail. For example, her short poem, “Stone Poem,” moves like its subjects: “You stoop to select a stone/to toss down the lazy path./It rolls, reaches level ground, stops/Stays in place when you pass. Actions and moments in the present are balanced by those of the past and the distant future. The poem concludes with: “and then the stone is home/for another thousand years.” Her poem, “When George Took Me to Greece,” which contains some of her best writing, is also concerned with time over the centuries and its ending with short lines is worth mentioning here to show how atmospheric her writing can be: “The setting sun lit the hill/And the golden temples floated/above the shadowed slope./My back against the ancient/ teaching rock, I dissolved.” “Wine and Cheese Villanelle,” demonstrates how Augustine can use a traditional form to express the feelings of a group of contemporary women discussing their problematic and sometimes failed relationships. “We women talked of kids and men/and Carrie poured more Zinfandel/ We were four good friends in Alice’s den.”

Augustine’s power of observation and description also shows forth in her poem entitled: “After Dinner with Ted at the High Noon Café.” Her use of a combination of long and short lines shows how fast she can shift gears from describing a romantic encounter to seeing a murderer: “As Ted caught and kissed me, I glanced past his shoulder/to see young Emilio standing under his porch light/in a blood spattered shirt/Against his thigh dangled/ the glint of a knife.” These poems show Augustine’s writing at its best and I hope to read more of her poems in the future.

Bryan Monte – AQ8 Autumn 2013 Book Reviews

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.

Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum Reviews Summer 2013 (AQ7)

Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum Reviews, Summer 2013 (AQ7)
by Bryan Monte

In the last two months, two very important museums have reopened on Amsterdam’s Museum Square or Museumplein as the Dutch refer to it. These are the Rijksmuseum (the Dutch national gallery) and the Van Gogh Museum. The opening completes the triad of museums along the square including the Stedelijk (which reopened last autumn) and, which with the Concertgebouw just to the South, make up the cultural heart of Amsterdam. The reopening of the Rijksmuseum was the most dramatic having been closed for ten years due to construction problems, cost overruns, and the bicycle path under the museum’s main galleries that had to remain open and which forced the architects and builders to change their plans. (Bicycles are one of the Netherland’s sacred cows. Cylists are given more leeway in traffic than pedestrians and motorists).

The Rijksmuseum was reopened by Queen Beatrix, with fireworks, military and marching bands and speeches. The Queen also held a state dinner in the “Hall of Honour” with visiting dignitaries and royalty from around the world just before her abdication and the investiture of her eldest son and his wife as King William Alexander and Queen Maxima respectively.

Now that the smoke has cleared, the museum is open and the crowds of visitors in their thousands have returned (300,000 in one month according to the Rijksmuseum’s website), it’s time to take a look at the remodelled Rijksmuseum and evaluate its improvements. The jewels in the Rijksmuseum’s crown, paintings by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Vermeer, Jan Steen and other 17th century notables, have been returned to their rightful places in the second-floor galleries. The paintings have been rehung on walls which are now a dark grey which makes the predominantly gold, brown, and grey tones on the canvases stand out.

At the end of the hall and the centre of attention of course is Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch.” It is hung just high enough so that viewers of the painting are the same height as some of the crowd characters on Rembrandt’s large canvas, so that from a distance, these viewers merge with the characters in the painting. The paintings in these galleries are on par with the Louvre’s best, but are presented in a much more intimate viewing environment. Few canvases are behind glass and viewers can walk within a meter or two of the paintings and take photographs unless specifically prohibited.

There are other improvements to the museum in addition to the darker gallery walls and access to the art. The paintings in many galleries are complimented and made more tactile by objects such as models, weapons, porcelain and furniture placed in the centre or to one side of the galleries. For example, spears and cannons are arrayed together in a gallery with paintings from the Netherland’s Indonesian or “Batavian” colonial period and ship’s model is the centre of a gallery with mostly maritime paintings. This breaks up the monotony of gallery after gallery of paintings and helps show artistic expression in the same period in different media and disciplines. Another improvement is the new Asian wing whose main features are a statute of the Hindu God, Shiva Nataraja, upstairs and two Japanese temple guardians downstairs.

Other major changes to the Rijksmuseum include its new main entrance and lobby area in two, underground, glassed-over, marble-lined courtyards bifurcated by the controversial bicycle path. The lobby can be reached by two, large, accessible, clear glass lifts on both sides of the bicycle path towards the North entrance along with two staircases at the South entrances. The new lobby/reception area includes a café, museum shop, bookstore, coat check, and restrooms. In addition, the second-floor lobby frescos, which were original to the building and Cuypers’ design and which had been covered over, have been restored.

Whilst the Rijksmuseum’s presentation of the paintings, sculptures, furniture and other artefacts in the various galleries is to be applauded, the layout of the museum’s new lobby, signage about how to navigate in the museum and the number and quality of facilities for the disabled invites criticism. Aesthetically, the museum’s new bifurcated marble and glass lobby is not welcoming but rather echoing, sterile and impersonal. Its clear glass roof is not as evocative or playful as rolling blue, glass roof over the British Museum’s courtyard, but more akin in construction to the hothouse roofs that dot the Dutch landscape. In addition, the restored Cupyers murals reveal why perhaps over the years they’d been painted over. Their idealized scenes of virtues and Dutch history are naïve, lifeless and flat compared to pre-Raphaelite or other Art Nouveau murals. Furthermore, the basement lobby’s hanging, treble-caged, white light and sound damping installations don’t lighten the lobbies’ atmosphere, but rather dangle heavily overhead like shark cages as was my experience when I ate in the café.

The café’s seating and service leaves much to be desired. The three times I’ve visited the museum, the café has been filled to overcapacity with people waiting on the staircases at both ends. The museum’s restaurant has not opened yet, so I assume once it does, this will take care of the overflow and shorten the wait for a table. The seating itself is disabled friendly with wide aisles although the sofa (lounge) chairs are set a bit low. There are conventional café chairs at round café tables that can be removed to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, but I did not see any tables specifically designated for disabled customers. Furthermore, what I also found lacking about the café was its service. When I sat down at 5 PM after my third visit, I had to literally, after waiting five minutes, flag down a waiter to take my order and then again later to pay my bill.

Signage in the museum is also too small or confusing. Immediately after visitors enter the museum through its marble portals, they see a sign which says: “To the Collections” which unfortunately sends visitors to the right through the medieval galleries and not to the left through the Renaissance galleries which lead to the lifts to the second floor Galleries of Honour which contain the 17th century paintings that most visitors want to see. Floor descriptions next to the lifts and signs for the toilets are generally too small for older patrons to read.

It’s also difficult following routes in the museum even though each floor on the official map has been colour-coded. I heard one gentleman in the Asian wing exclaim: “How do I get to the second floor from here?” meaning probably that he was trying to get there to see the “Nightwatch.” In addition, signs like those for the lift with a standing figure and arrows going up and down, are perhaps not understandable to non-European visitors. Directions in Chinese, Russian and one Romantic language in addition to Dutch and English would be advisable based on the composition of the crowds on the days I visited.

Futhermore, as you could probably predict from my last review of the reopened Stedelijk in AQ6, the museum needs be far more sensitive to accessibility for disabled people in its lobby, cafe, shop, bookstore, and toilets. When I first visited the museum, the weekend before the Queen Beatrix’s state dinner, access to the café, shop and bookstore was restricted to only the able-bodied who could use the stairs. Anyone wanting to use the lifts to these areas had to ask the security guard to use his/her magnetic key to unlock the lift. In addition, there are no handrails along the sides of the staircase (along the marble walls), just in the middle. Thankfully, on my second and third visits a few weeks later, one could operate these lifts without having to ask a guard for a key. However, the toilet in the sub-basement level is only wide enough for the able bodied and the doors to the bookshop are far too heavy for some disabled people to open.

Another area of concern in the lobby is unimpeded access to ramps – especially the ones on the north side leading to the toilets and one on the south which is a gallery exit. Access to these ramps was taped off on my two most recent visits to the Rijksmuseum. Both times when I exited the Delft’s Blauw and Keys Gallery 0.7 and wanted to descending into the lobby along a ramp, I found the ramp to be roped off at the bottom. Both times I tried unsuccessfully to get a guard’s attention to lift the tape so I could pass. Both times, I had to move one of the poles myself so I could squeeze around it with my Zimmer frame.

On my last two visits, I’ve also had to ask a guard to remove a tape barrier at the entrance of a lobby ramp so I could roll up to the main toilets. Furthermore, there’s only one disabled toilet on each side and the hallway that connects the two toilets areas in the bifurcated lobby, has four steps, which make it impassible for a disabled person to go easily from one side to the other side, should one of the two toilets be occupied.

In comparison with the Rijksmuseum, the newly reopened Van Gogh Museum just down the street has plenty to crow about, not only due to the quality and depth of its exhibition about its namesake, but also due to the quality and accessibility of its bookshop and café. Reopened not more than a month ago, the renovated Van Gogh has maintained the original integrity and design of its Gerrit Rietveld building and assembled perhaps the most complete exhibition of Van Gogh’s work one will probably see in his/her lifetime. Paintings are on loan from Dutch museums such as the Amsterdam Stedelijk, the Boijmans Van Beuningen, and Van Gogh Kröller-Müller, as well museums outside of the Netherlands, and most importantly, from private collections.

The Van Gogh exhibition has been chronologically arranged with early works on the ground and first (American English second) floors and his later periods on the second and third floors, so as one ascends, one goes forward in time. In addition there are many studies and versions of paintings such as the Potato Eaters, the Weaver (one from the Van Gogh, and one from the Kröller-Müller) and Sunflowers, (one from the Van Gogh, the other from the National Gallery in London). Viewers can thus compare Van Gogh’s execution of the same subject but with slightly different perspectives and/or colour pallets. The Van Gogh has also added interesting videos in different areas about Van Gogh’s history, his various styles and the conservation of his works.

As far as accessibility is concerned, the front entrance is accessible by a wheelchair lift at the far left of the staircase, though a museum guard had to lift the tape barrier so I could use the express lane with my museum card to enter. There are two lobby elevators: one for eight people and another for 21 people— both large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and a pram simultaneously. Even with busloads full of tourists, the flow in the museum on the two days I visited (one weekday afternoon and one Sunday afternoon) was well-managed.

The two bookshops both in the lobby entrance and the basement extension, have aisles wide enough for wheelchairs and a good selection of art books about various painters. The one in the basement extension is also a bit quieter and has comfortable surround chairs and a table where patrons can sit and leaf through books. The self-service café is also welcoming and accessible. The aisles in the dining room are wide enough for wheelchair users, though the tables themselves are a bit too close together. The food is very good. I had a coffee and a slice of the lemon cheese pie on my first visit and found both delicious. The salad, apple pie, and caffe latte on my second visit were also good. There are more than enough chairs and tables inside and outside the café to accommodate visitors and there is a large lift downstairs (all the way to the end of the seating area outside) to the toilets in the new extension.

Here, however, is where the Van Gogh falls short—with its disabled toilets. There is only one disabled toilet downstairs in the new wing and unfortunately, this space is also shared with a diaper changing area. On the second day I visited the second disabled toilet, at the entrance lobby, was out of order. Exiting the museum also required that I get a guard’s attention so that she could lift the tape by the entrance so that I could go from the exit lanes to the entrance lanes to get back to the disabled lift.

If you are pressed for time when visiting Amsterdam and can only see one of these two museums (especially if the queues to the Rijkmuseum are wrapped around the building), then I would recommend visiting the Van Gogh. I doubt, as I mentioned above, that a collection of this depth, with paintings, drawings and watercolours from many museums and private collections, will ever be assembled in one place in my lifetime. The Rijksmuseum’s paintings, though of equal importance, can wait for another visit, or if that’s not possible, many can be viewed on the museum’s website. But do try to visit both museums. It will be more than worth the effort.

Book Reviews Summer 2013 (AQ7)

Summer 2013 Amsterdam Quarterly Book Reviews
by Bryan Monte

How to Kill Poetry, Raymond Luczak, Sibling Rivalry Press, ISBN 978-1-937420-29-1
Gutter, The magazine of new Scottish writing, Spring 2013, Freight Books, ISSN 2041-3475; ISBN 978-1-908754-13-4
Quiet Paris, Siobhan Wall, Frances Lincoln Limited Publishers, ISBN 978-0—7112-3343-0
A Lioness at my Heels, Robin Winckel-Mellish, Hands-On Books, ISBN 978-1-920397-43-2

I received or became aware of four more books worth mentioning during this year’s unusually cold, wet spring (one of the coldest on record and certainly the coldest and wettest I can remember in twenty years in the Netherlands). Dutch meteorologists are not certain whether this unusual weather is one of the first signs of global warming. I am certain, however, that the less than pleasant weather outside has given me more time inside to read, making my four book selections for this quarter a bit more adventurous. In addition to two books of poetry, I’ve also chosen a photography book and a literary journal to review.

Raymond Luczak’s How to Kill Poetry is book of three parts. The first part is a recapitulation of Western poetry including poems modelled on the works of Sappho, Homer, Shakespeare, Phillis Wheatley, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg and many others. This section shows Luczak’s awareness of literary history (he did, however, as an American, leave out Hardy, Yeats and Eliot) and his mastery of various poetic forms and styles.

The second part of Luczak’s book includes a facsimile of The Warmth of Winter by Roland Rieves, “Winner of the Shughill Poetry Paper Award 2213.” It’s supposedly printed on special paper in a limited edition of ten copies due to the climatic destruction the world’s trees. In this collection Rieves, (aka Luczak), writes rhapsodically about the cold and winters that no longer exist with poems such as “Hyperthermia” and “Jack Frost’s Bite.” In “Hyperthermia,” Luczak also displays his gift for concrete poetry. The lines cascade down the page like ocean waves. His poems entitled, “The Lyre” and “The Hydra” in the third section called “Leaves of Glass, 2363 CE,” also imitate these objects shapes without sacrificing any quality in their description.

In the third section, Luczak provides a history in poetry of what happened to the earth when its climate “reached its tipping point in 2234.” People live in biodomes up north and churches no longer exist. Winners of contests get to wear spacesuits to retrieve books in the Hades of Texas. In this section he once again imitates the poetry of Walt Whitman and Arthur Rimbaud to make his point. In How to Kill Poetry, Luczak gives his readers more than enough to think about regarding poetry and climate change. If you care about the environment, love poetry and only have time to read one book this summer, let it be this one.

Gutter, an anthology of Scottish writing, was given to me by AQ contributor, Iain Matheson, whose slightly surrealist poems “the refreshment trolley is now closed” and “Could be” are included in the spring issue, number 8. Also included is fiction by Nick Brooks, Rodge Glass and Kirsten MacKenzie, poetry by Sally Evans, Brian Johnstone and David Kinloch and reviews of Ron Butlin’s The Magicians of Edinburgh, William Letford’s Bend, and J. David Simons’ An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful among others. Even though Gutter is anthology of Scottish writing, not all of its works are set in Scotland. Kirstin Zhang’s short story, “Rain on the Roof,” for example, takes place in Papua New Guinea and describes that country’s poverty and harshness of its climate. The story is told by, Epi, a gardener and his struggle to keep his plants alive during a drought. There are also some poems on Biblical subjects such as David Kinloch’s “Lilith, ” “Sarah,” and “Ruth,” as well as classical ones “Bacchus and Adriane” and “Diana and Acteon” by Hugh McMillan and “Dionysian hangover” by Stav Poleg. In all, Gutter makes an interesting read which is published twice-yearly by Glasgow’s Freight Books.

The third book I would like to mention is Amsterdam resident’s Siobhan Wall’s photography book, Quiet Paris. This book is the third in a series with Quiet Amsterdam and Quiet London as its predecessors. In Quiet Paris Wall has assembled photos of the tranquil interiors and/or exteriors of the quiet museums, gardens, cafes, shops, bookshops, restaurants, places of worship, etc. that can be found in The City of Lights. Her photos have a sense of balance and serenity (although all, but three, are devoid of people). My favourites are her photos of the rough-hewn stone and simple chairs of the Eglise Saint Severin and the Musèe d’ Art Brut bookshop, whose painted, metal columns and views through its large windows embody fin de siècle architecture and Impressionist Paris respectively. One location included in her photographs which I strongly recommend to Parisian visitors looking for peace and quiet is The Tea Caddy, 14 rue Saint Julien le Pauvre, where I enjoyed a splendid cup of coffee, quiche and flan without hearing one mobile ringtone.

One of the reasons Wall’s photos achieve such as sense of calm is due to their balance and deep focus. Churches and cathedrals are shown with arching vaults or doorways centred as are walkways leading through gardens and parks. Most of the building photos are of interiors. One very successful exterior is that of Restaurant de Lat, interesting for its curved perspective as it rises and also for the clouds in the upper left corner. I think a challenge for Ms Wall in her next book, (if she does another of a quiet city), would be to include more building exteriors in their entirety and more people in the scenes she photographs to see if she can still convey a sense of a “peopled” urban serenity.

And lastly, I would like to recommend Robin Winckel-Mellish’s A Lioness at my Heels. This book of poetry describes scenes and people principally in South Africa but also a few in the Netherlands as well. Her poetry is at its best when she is describing landscapes which function as a metaphor for her feelings. The first lines of “Meditation while waiting for something unpleasant” are: “If my mind wanders/it’s to that stone farmhouse/beside the winding dust road/the ostriches, a few palms/a creaky bridge over a dried up stream.” This is poetry that takes the reader into a landscape which is immediate and real. Her poetry can also reflect a sensual awareness as in “Anniversary eggs,” “Restaurant Mozambique” and “Paper boat.” Other favourites of mine include “Old Rose,” about an aged cook, “Madiba,” about Nelson Mandela, and “The same language,” about returning émigrés, which describe South Africa’s old and new orders. Technically Winckel-Mellish’s poems use a variety of stanza and line lengths that are organic to the subjects described. In addition, the image of the lioness appears three times and functions as a way of holding the book together through its three sections. Whilst reviewing A Lionness at my Heels I read it unorthodoxly—from back to front. I can happily report that I enjoyed it just as much (if not more) as when I read it from front to back. I hope you will too.

Book Reviews Spring 2013 (AQ6)

Amsterdam Quarterly Book Reviews Spring 2013 (AQ6)
by Bryan R. Monte

One Window North by Kate Foley, 69 pages, Shoestring Press, ISBN 978-1-907356-63-6
Song of San Francisco, by Edward Mycue, 20 pages, Spectacular Diseases, (no ISBN) 83(b) London Rd, Petersborough, Cambs., PE2 9BS, UK.
Poet Wrangler, droll poems by Marvin R. Hiemstra, 65 pages, Two Harbors Press, ISBN 978-1-937928-46-9
Less Fortunate Pirates by Bryan Borland, 87 pages, Sibling Rivalry Press, ISBN 978-1-937420-24-6.

During the past submission period, I’ve received four books that I felt were especially worthy of mention—each for slightly different reasons. The first book I received was Kate Foley’s One Window North—her fifth poetry book from Shoestring Press—with its beautiful, cover illustration of the view out the poet’s north-facing kitchen window by Claire Peasnall. Since I interviewed Foley in AQ4, I’m a bit more familiar with her work. One of the reasons that Foley’s poetry is so interesting is because she draws the reader into her descriptions. Another reason is because she depicts life in Amsterdam where she has lived since 1997. Before her move to the Netherlands, she was head of English Heritage’s Ancient Monuments Laboratory. Thus, it’s not surprising that many of her previous poetry collections have been about paintings or the process of making art.

One Window North, however, distinguishes itself from her previous books in that it is less about visual art and more a personal view of herself—her life in Amsterdam and her mortality and others’ since, as she mentioned in her AQ4 interview, she is “knocking on a bit.” The book’s first poem, “How Loaves Come Singing” states: “Those who are statistically a little closer/to death, not necessarily wise,/ are less inclined// to find the idea romantic.” “A Short Chapter in the History of Stone” follows. It is about the stoning of an Iranian woman for infidelity. A third poem, “For Agnes Sina-Imakoju” about “a sixteen year-old girl shot in a take away” follows directly thereafter.

There are many more poems about death and mortality in One Window North. “The Tin Factory” describes someone being fitted for an artificial heart and there is the more personal, “Heart Surgery.” Poems such as “More Less an Island” and “Oma” describe elderly pensioners, “Postcards” and “To the Field of Reeds,” the artifacts and ideas of the hereafter from ancient civilizations in present-day Malta and Eqypt respectively. These are sparsely-worded poems about weighty subjects. All benefit from Foley’s cinematic ability to zoom in on only what is important to tell a story.

In fact, most of One Window North’s poems are no more than a page to a page and half long. Foley’s experiments with long poetic series such as the 21 sections of The Silver Rembrandt and A Fox Assisted Cure have been scaled back. One Window North contains a series of six poems entitled “Coming in Late” about music concerts perhaps inspired by frequent visits to the nearby Concertgebouw. Here, Foley has definitely raised the bar. Trying to describe music is far more challenging and abstract than, for example, portraying the colours and/or figures in a painting. How does one describe tonality with images? Foley does so by describing a drumroll as: “a drummer pouring out/the thunder of a barrel of apples,” or “A young pianist, wobbly as a calf,/her plump figures butting the notes,/tears on her face. I must admit I’m not sure I know exactly what “shubertian uplands” or “pizzacato mountains” look like, but I can imagine what they feel or sound like. And this is what makes One Window North a delight to read.

The next book I would like to recommend is Edward Mycue’s slim, ten poem volume entitled “Song of San Francisco.” Sean Carey, in his introduction to this book, refers to these poems as a Song Cycle. The first poem, “The Song of Cities Like Viruses,” starts with the line: “is survival about leaving a message of what works.” Survival and disease are two themes that are woven through the next nine poems. “Sugerstrands” talks about how Mycue’s mother: “…cupped her right hand into my head to press me/into a welter of old beliefs…” to try to protect him. In “I Went Out Into the Sun of Broken Glass,” Mycue describes how “I went out queer, clumsy, read, and egg-/shell thin drinking the evening thickening and soft,” a very elegant beginning of a journey that would take him to Africa as a young adult in the Peace Corps and to San Francisco later as a gay man. He describes failures along the way in “SOUB – Same Old Under Born as: “some solo spinout,/ some bungled possibility, some/token aspiration.” He explores his genealogy in “Old School,” and his connectedness with “We Are All Husbands Here.” And “Memory Tongue” is one of the best poems about San Francisco’s emotional geography: “San Francisco, you/blind, handsome city./your harbor has a stone/ in its mouth.” echoing my sentiments exactly (as a former ten-year resident). This thin book of songs is well worth reading.

Marvin R. Hiemstra’s Poet Wrangler, droll poems, has a more comic tone, but its poems are just as well-written. Poet Wrangler shows the range of Hiemstra’s poems which vary anywhere from very short, thin poem’s of Eastern/hippie wisdom such as in “The Poet’s First Duty.” in the book’s third section called “Dancing at the Last Roundup.” “Don’t forget/to blow/tenderly/in the ear/of the Universe/ as often as/you can.// The Universe/gets/so lonely.” Longer ruminations in the same section include the series of four poems from page 52 to page 57 which include “A Poet’s Handy Tool List,” “A Selection from “The Poet with Us: Nora May French,”” “Just Found Dream,” “Wooly, My Muse,” and “Tell Them You Are in Rehab.”

Hiemstra’s poetry exhibits a playfulness that is not afraid to experiment with line length and typography and mix it with humour to talk about love, loss, and of course, the meaning of life. The book contains list poems, poems about dreams, even poems about prehistory such as “Carbon Dating Can Be Pretty Sexy/Just Remember Forever Isn’t” which begins with “Long, long ago, people got stuck/in thoughts, giraffes galloped by, joyful,//notes bouncing on the landscape. People/painted those giraffes on solid rock.” Hiemstra writes: “I print poems,/heartscapes high on a cliff. Rock Face/will cherish my words, hold them tight/till Earth crumbles.” And he puts the relative worth of his poetry into perspective showing its reception by one of the modern guardians of literature, the librarians, in “Best Compliment Ever.”  “Our poetry review has hatched at last./ I deliver it to libraries stuck on hold: jolting/each slow motion librarian from a dream…” The book fails to excite the “dusty librarian, who stifles an Arctic yawn…” The poem ends with an unexpected validation from a homeless man next to “a jammed Wall Street Journal rack/ he whispers, “Hey man, I really like your shirt.”” This puts the poet’s desire for connection, notoriety and/or recognition into perspective. Hiemstra’s Zen-like, humourous observations remind me of those of Allen Ginsberg or James Broughton.

Less Fortunate Pirates by Bryan Borland is a collection of approximately 50 poems about the writer’s “first year without my father.” The collection starts in December just after the writer’s father dies in a car accident and continues through the next year just beyond Thanksgiving. The collection begins with “Instructions for How to Approach the Bereaved,” at a funeral or wake and continues with a “buried,” “frozen” Christmas where “Midnight mass turns/mourning chapel/Jingle bells toll joylessly.” It includes poems about childhood reminiscences, genealogy, his father’s profession, dreams about his father, and a psychic’s explanation of the real reason for his father’s accident. All of this whilst the writer gets on with his life packing away his father’s belongings, fixing his mother’s home and caring for the family plot.

Pirates is an impressive collection of mostly short poems which are powerful in their combination of the mundane with the writer’s remembrance of his father’s absence. For example, in his poem, “Pedestal Days,” “Pardons come as easy as breath/in the waxy face of difficult decisions,/the color of the casket,/which shirt goes with forever.” Or from “The Day That Cemeteries Change: “Like a backyard quarterback/I kneel with my bare knee//to settle the flowers we leave/against the winds of our absence.” Such writing is simple, precise and concentrated and draws the reader through the collection to its conclusion in December a year later. It is a book, which undoubtedly will touch both those who have lost a parent and lost who have not.