From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Summer 1991, Vol. XIII, No. 3
The doe lay dead on her back in a field of asters: no.
The doe lay dead on her back beside the school bus stop: yes.
Where we waited.
Her belly white as a cut pear. Where we waited: no: off
from where we waited: yes:
at a distance: making a distance
as we kept her dead run in sight, that we might see if she chose
to go skyward;
that we might run, too, turn tail
if she came near
and troubled our fear with presence: with ghostly blossoming: with the
and the black stain the algae makes when the water
We can take the gilt-edged strolling of the clouds: yes.
But the risen from the dead: no!
The haloey trouble shooting of the goldfinches in the bush:
yes: but in season:
kept within bounds,
not in the pirated rows of corn,
not above winter’s pittance of river.
The doe lay dead: she lent
her deadness to the morning, that the morning might have weight, that
our waiting might matter: be upheld by significance: by light
on the rhododendron, by the ribbons the sucked mint loosed
on the air,
by the treasonous gold-leaved passage of season, and you
from me/child/from me/
from . . . not mother: no:
but the weather that would hold you: yes:
hothouse you to fattest blooms: keep you in mild unceasing rain, and the fixed
stations of heat: like a pedalled note: or the held
breath: sucked in, and stay: yes:
but: no: not done: can’t be:
the doe lay dead: she could
the dead can mother nothing . . . nothing
but our sight: they mother that, whether they will or no:
they mother our looking, the gap the tongue prods when the tooth is missing, when
fancy seeks the space.
The doe lay dead: yes: and at a distance, with her legs up and frozen, she tricked
our vision: at a distance she was
for a moment no deer
but two swans: we saw two swans
and they were fighting
or they were coupling
or they were stabbing the ground for some prize
worth nothing, but fought over, so worth that, worth
the fought-over glossiness: the morning’s fragile-tubed glory.
And this is the soul: like it or not. Yes: the soul comes down: yes: comes
into the deer: yes: who dies: yes: and in her death twins herself into swans:
fools us with mist and accident into believing her newfound finery
and we are not afraid
though we should be
and we are not afraid as we watch her soul fly on: paired
as the soul always is: with itself:
Two swans . . .
Child. We are done for
in the most remarkable ways.
Once upon a time, I lived alone with my father in a cottage at the edge of the wood. My father forbade me from entering the forest for fear I’d encounter Trump, the seething, hump-backed monster who lived there. I obeyed this order despite the lure of the forest’s wildflowers and iridescent songbirds and other feminine thrills because, like all girls, I loathed Trump.
All through my childhood, I dreaded Trump even as I dismissed him. The Apprentice? Didn’t watch it. His hotels, casinos, and golf resorts? Never set foot in them. His pageant full of beauty queens? Nothing but a far-off, foreign land populated by mythical creatures. At home in my cottage I was happy, and safe, and free from Trump’s empty pleasures.
Or at least I was safe until I entered adolescence, when my father began to transform. His skin took on a sickly orange sheen, his hair grew paler, and his body turned flabby and humped. He became irritable and snappish, and his demands on me grew. No more could I spend all day singing or painting or inventing stories; he told me a woman’s work was to cater to men. No more could I go all day without combing my hair or looking in a mirror; he told me it was my duty to be beautiful.
He changed in more menacing ways, too. Under the light of the moon he raged, making noises just like Trump, and I kept my bedroom door barred as I slept. In the mornings I found my father preening in front of the mirror: practicing his puckered mouth, narrowing his hard little eyes. He never caught me watching him, never knew that I saw him for what he was. I made sure of that.
When my father began making plans to sell me off to a husband, I understood I had to leave. I had a destination in mind: a little hamlet on the other side of the forest, a place that was home to a perpetual rainbow. I would be welcomed there. Every new resident, I’d heard, was greeted with a sack of books, a loaf of fresh bread, and a clever black cat. I had only to travel through the forest to get there.
And so I left my father behind. I took off alone into the forest without so much as a picnic basket or a pocketful of bread crumbs. Deeper and deeper I walked into the heart of the wood. My legs shook as I went. I’d heard the woodcutter had taken his children into the woods to starve, that a girl was pursued by a lusty wolf, and that Trump himself lurked in the shadows waiting for young women like me. I was frightened, but I refused to turn back. The sky went black and the moon came out and still I carried on, growing more confident with each step. The forest, as everyone knows, is female.
As I made my solitary progress through the trees, my steps grew nimble and swift. Soon I’d break out of the forest and find my new home, a place where women lived freely. I could read all day, and eat cake for dinner every night if I wished, and feed my smart black cat anchovies straight from the tin. I’d make friends, too, with other women who had left their own fathers, and together we’d paint rocks and build canoes and trade stories against the brightness of bonfire.
I was so distracted by these thoughts that I wandered off the path and into a dense thicket. Before I could correct myself, he materialized before me—Trump himself, standing near a rotting tree trunk. His beady eyes glimmered in his bloated face, and his ego outbloomed even his hair. Insecurity and rage rained from his body like flakes of dead skin.
For a long moment I stood frozen, trying to become still enough to disappear. This had been my survival strategy back home with my father, and the familiarity exhausted me. I’d come so far through the forest—had scratched my legs on thorns and evaded snakes and bats—to escape my father, but I failed. Here was the real thing looming above me, a predator far more treacherous than that from which I’d fled.
My entire body began to tremble. I wondered what Trump would do to me. Grab me between the legs, probably, and twist me to pieces. Cut me with his golden fingernails. Crush my insides piece by piece until I was no longer myself but something flat and wasted, like a paper doll. I stood sinking in a patch of moss and silently called for someone to save me—the wolf, the woodcutter, even the crafty gingerbread witch—but no one came. I was alone.
And yet nothing happened. Miraculously, Trump had not noticed me. Instead, he’d found a pool of water and was bending over it, admiring himself.
I didn’t move. I barely breathed. In the quiet, the forest unfolded into activity. A young girl draped in a red cloak peeked around a tree stump. The gingerbread witch cracked dead leaves under her feet as she edged closer. The woodcutter rested his hatchet against a rock. A tawny wolf rubbed two twigs between his paws, sparking a flame.
Not one of them paid any attention to me. They were fixated on Trump. I tracked the glee in their eyes, the revulsion, the willingness to be dazzled. The wolf was young and hungry and despised Trump, anyone could see that, while the girl delighted in the spectacle without granting it any credibility. The gingerbread witch, a woman who had never lived away from her little house in the woods, watched Trump with a misty-eyed expression that suggested admiration mixed with malice. The woodcutter, meanwhile, peeled off his plaid button-down to reveal a white wifebeater that read Make America Great Again.
My old home was so very far away. My father could not find me. I’d made sure of that. But I’d merely traded one monster for another.
Trump leaned closer to the pond, stretching his lips into a reptilian smile. If he fell in, he wouldn’t drown. He’d float, bobbing at the surface, fouling the water and ruining it for the fish.
I took a step forward. Then another. The girl in the cloak noticed first and ran toward me. She grabbed my wrist and pulled, but I shook her off. The witch flicked her wizened hands in my face as she recited a prayer, but I stepped around her. The wolf showed me his teeth, but I took note of how silky his fur was, how neatly trimmed his claws, and I brushed him aside. The woodcutter came last, wielding his hatchet. He swung haphazardly through the air a few times, but when I did not flinch, he dropped his shoulders and wandered away.
I pressed on. Trump was still gazing into his own reflection. I wondered what he could possibly love about himself. If he was truly like my father: everything.
And he was like my father. They were one and the same, and I knew them both intimately. When I reached the edge of the pond, I saw not Trump’s reflection but the father I’d abandoned. I’d fled that man’s home because crossing a dangerous forest alone at night was better than submitting to him. Being ripped apart by a wolf, or baked in the witch’s oven, or hacked to pieces by the woodcutter were better fates than deferring to a man like that.
At last, Trump noticed me. He looked up with a mildly surprised expression. He was in a generous mood, I could tell. He might be kind to me. He might not touch me. He would leer and smarm and ooze but would not flatten me. Not physically. Not just yet.
I smiled at him. I smiled big, and he smiled back. He thought I was his. Everything was his, in Trump world. Especially a young woman wandering alone in the woods.
Trump crooked his finger at me. Come here, come here. He unhinged his jaw. His tongue, green and covered in boils, panted in his mouth. He was asking, politely, to devour me. I could see the remnants of so many others who’d gone before me stuck between his teeth.
I held his gaze and kept my smile. This was what calmed him, what led him believe I was his. I maintained eye contact even as I leaned forward, far far far, until I was close enough to touch his rippled reflection. He caught on to what I was doing just before I did it. He tried to reach for me, but I was too clever and fast.
I plunged my hand into the water, right through his fat smug face, and shattered his image with a splash.
Trump instantly transformed. His head turned the poisonous color of the wet insides of blood orange. His hair stood on end, moving now under its own power. The loose skin on his neck rippled as fury washed off him as sharp and stinging as salt. He screamed, but it was unintelligible—too much sound forced out through that tiny puckered opening.
I kept my hand in the water. I waved it around, making his features contort, warp, collapse. Trump had no recourse but to stamp his feet, first one and then the other, harder and harder until he started sinking into the mud at the edge of the pond. A fine mist rose around him—steam or smoke or pure rage—and the harder he stomped, the more the mist choked him.
The girl, the wolf, the witch, and the woodcutter eased toward the pond. They stood in a line, solemnly watching Trump destroy himself. Not one attempted to help him.
The reflection in the water was no longer Trump but instead a dark, filmy blur, like the inside of a tornado. I watched, mesmerized, as the blur blackened and shrunk, consuming itself. On the shore, Trump no longer screamed. Instead he began clawing at his own body, grabbing handfuls of clothing and skin as if to say Here, look, look at me, look.
I swirled my hand in the water one more time, and that did it. Trump crossed his arms over his torso, latched on, and pulled hard enough to tear himself into two. He erupted into smoke plumes and dissolved, falling back to the earth in a pile of black sand.
Everything was still. The pond’s surface settled into a glassy, serene state. It reflected the trees and the sky and maybe even me, had I bothered to look for myself.
The girl, the wolf, the witch, and the woodcutter assessed me with piercing eyes. One by one, they knelt to investigate the black sand, which they let flow loosely through their fingers. One by one, they made identical faces of disgust and retreated into the woods.
All except the little girl. She walked to the edge of the pond and disrobed. Under that red cloak she was glorious, a shining, brilliant girl. She shook out her cloak and lowered it carefully onto the surface of the pond.
We had no need for words. We were sated, content, in sync. Together we stood on the shore, watching the red cloak drift over the water like a spreading bloom of blood.
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish. What I Learned at the War. West End Press, 2016. 80 pages. $15.95.
I believe there is an Oklahoma aesthetic. I’m wrong about most things but not, I hope, about this. Jeanetta Calhoun Mish dives in, devours, delimbs, and details that aesthetic in her fine collection of poems What I Learned at the War.
To call these poems confessional is to over-simplify them. There are poems to old boyfriends, a current lover (or lovers), family members, friends, other poets, even the self, and yet, unlike the typical confessional poem, Mish seems uninterested in mythologizing the self. When I read this book, I don’t feel like I’m watching an exhibition, rather that someone I’m seated next to on a plane is revealing something solemn to me.
This is wholly Oklahoman.
We are modest people; we’re still not sure how we survived the Dust Bowl, much less being conjoined, permanently, to the shoulders of Texas.
While Mish’s delivery may be understated, her poetics are bold. This is a book of gorgeous passages and memorable lines. In “Thirst,” the poet confesses, “my hair twisted up in your finders, lifted / away to make room for your mouth— / how strange that the word delicate / should appear in a poem for you.” In “When Dreams Die,” the poet, invoking Gwendolyn Brooks, beseeches: “Listen! Hear / humming of hymns, wailing of women, the / banal benediction in future’s falsetto, fierce / fists beating breast, the final hammering.”
Dear Mr. Alliteration, your pilgrim has arrived!
My favorite poem is “Elegy for My First Boyfriend.” The poem is smart, formally inventive, and emotionally resonant without manipulation. Its last line is one James Wright wished he had written: “I’m ashamed this / elegy’s so late.”
Even non-Oklahomans know that sentiment. —DR
Jennifer Givhan. Landscape with Headless Mama. Pleiades Press, 2016. 89 pages. $17.95.
Jennifer Givhan’s debut collection, Landscape with Headless Mama (winner of the 2015 Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry) draws its breath from the surrealist Spanish-Mexican painter Remedios Varo. As such, Givhan imbues her shifting subjects with the magic reserved for the mythological, yet this collection of stunning poems grounds itself in the experiences of motherhood.
Readers travel through miscarriage, IVF, dissolution of marriage, and adoption, slowly accruing the emotional weight of the speaker’s history. Haunting this collection is the wreckage of being mothered and mothering—the speaker’s own mentally ill mother bears a mythos that affects the speaker’s ordeal with fertility and infertility.
The echoes of the speaker’s ordeals reverberate from her childhood to her present. In the poem “Chicken-Hearted” Givhan sears the reader with her sestina’s formal play allows for an embodiment of this inheritance as throughout the collection the figure of the asylum-committed-mother appears and reappears. In this poem Givhan confesses her teenaged pregnancy to her disapproving mother,
The trick was to keep apart from her long enough for my heart
to sterilize itself & keep that pink baby from cleaners of flu
or Mama’s broken chicken heart. The trick was to stay pregnant.
Givhan includes a staggering crown of sonnets that lay bare the relationship between personal history and legend—the speaker’s mother “lost her head” as the mythic wife leaves the bed one part at a time during the night. As a metaphor extended throughout the book, folktale epigraphs add to the surreal layers of memory.
This debut is both a treed wood yet each poem is its own forest—each poem is crafted with the precision of a hawk’s eye, yet they all fit together to form this haunting and redemptive opus. With images like
. . . How I found mama
in the nursing home, unturned in bed.
How her bedsores grew spores.
How flowering from her split & shaken skin,
mushrooms, gilled & grey-hatted.
. . . If your body were transformed
as if by magic, what then of sadness?
What splits from this collection is the debut of a poet whose images claw their way out from the dream world and nest in the readers’ eyes. Indeed, this is the fierce work of a poet who cannot and will not be ignored. —RM
Jon Tribble. Natural State. Glass Lyre Press, 2016. 112 pages. $16.00.
Like the “thicket of young willows” in his poem “We Are Part of the Body,” John Tribble “leans south.” Readers who lean south, too, will want to check out this strong first collection set in the author’s home state of Arkansas. Tribble’s poems tend to length and lushness, calling up details associated with the region’s beauty, such as the “heavy sweet decay” of magnolia petals. Some of the most memorable and disturbing work here, however, considers masculinity, violence, and gender conflict. A grandfather feeds pea pods to wild rabbits, then drops a smoke bomb on starlings nesting in the chimney. A father can hardly bear to touch or be touched. An impoverished congregation rejects sacraments from a female minister. An unruly musician, kicked out of the high school band, advises the poet to “feel the bass line growing out of [his] back,” to develop an “elemental” relation to the notes. Meanwhile, “potbellied coaches” try to burn off the lawless energy of teenagers on football fields. Sometimes Tribble lets unresolved tension hang in the air like humidity. Fair enough. Yet during my favorite moments, some charge of feeling leaps across gaps of race and class, as when the “drunks, punks, low-life scum” in Driver’s Ed, forced to watch the same film of bloody automotive disaster every week, begin laughing, “giddy and ashamed, joyously alive.” Such unlikely unities are an important national resource, this year especially. —LW
C. Dale Young. The Halo. Four Way Books, 2016. 63 pages. $15.95.
Young’s fascinating meditation is voiced through the awakening of an unexpected angel experiencing the suffering throes of human life while yearning to simply be mortal. Drenched in society’s necessitated bowing to (religious) conviction, Young’s angel bears all conflict thereof, in traumatic personal event(s) and histories, and in the manifest of autonomy and surrendering to beingness beyond the legislated.
When I stood, there in the mirror, my wings outstretched
with their tiny feathers wet, almost glutinous, a quick
ribbon of blood snaking down my back. You wonder
why I am such a master of avoidance, such a master
of what is withheld. Is there any wonder now?
I had no idea then they would wither and fall off
in a few weeks. When Father Callahan patted
my head in the sacristy and told me I was
a good boy, a really good boy, an extraordinary boy,
I wanted to be anything but extraordinary.
Throughout, Young weaves linguistic, literary, liturgical, and medical terminologies, juxtaposing them with hard notions of exact push and pull that any human encounters in a disorderly world.
Like an accident, a wreck, a tumble, a fall, to earth and misery, with punitive measures taken out on one who is pure and yet imperfect, mortal; or is he? There is a substantial equation existing within these pages, maybe as difficult to tread in a micro-review as it is to withhold wings meant to burst open eight-feet wide from between the shoulder blades of a man, who has been broken and is laid up in a hospital bed, learning how to walk again, to emerge, while struggling not to take flight before the witnesses surrounding the majesty, while all the while straining to study the fallacy of memory, of perspective, and of becoming. “You think you have learned something about tenderness–” the poet writes, in this impeccable book of numerological recovery.
The Halo is a miraculous, stunning symphony chorded in the fifth, the quintain, the constant symbolism in the whole. Here, the bearer of heavy burden who speaks to us each entry, postulates questions of eternities, queers the boundaries of realms, of the body, of what reaches through us and exists within us, secret, yet piercing with immediacy and certainty of eventual display. It is the stuff that pushed Donne, Shelley, Shakespeare, and pushes Young, piercing the back of the speaker to open his majestic wingspread for all to behold and be afraid for as well as fear. —AHC
Linda LeGarde Grover. The Sky Watched: Poems of Ojibwe Lives. Red Mountain Press, 2016. 86 pages. $18.95.
Arranged into four sections corresponding to the seasons, Linda LeGarde Grover’s The Sky Watched: Poems of Ojibwe Lives suggests that the chronology of a people’s year recapitulates the chronology of their history and that the past, as Faulkner so famously said, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” The collection includes poems that refer to Ojibwe mythology and poems written in the voices of several boarding school students, as well as some that read autobiographically.
While most of the poems are free verse narratives composed in comparatively long lines and stanzas, among the most intriguing and stylistically insistent is a prose poem, “Everything You Need to Know in Life You’ll Learn at Boarding School.” The sentences here are short and imperative, merging instruction with critique of Ojibwe tradition:
Speak English. Forget the language of your grandparents. It is dead. Forget their teachings . . . Indians are not clean . . . Stand in line. You will learn cleanliness. This is a toothbrush. Hang it on the hook next to the others. Do not allow the bristles to touch. This spreads the disease that you bring to school from your families.
In the fused voices that create the poem’s voice, one can hear the speaker’s impatient disdain. The poem weaves motifs of language and cleanliness with those of loss and implicit violence throughout, often repeating sentences verbatim to suggest the relentless determination of the boarding school agenda to “whiten” Indians.
The Sky Watched is a book of and for community. It is a book of witness. It testifies to survivance as, according to its last lines, “a continuing song / since long before the memory of mortals.” —LD
Safiya Sinclair. Cannibal. University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 126 pages. $17.95.
“To live here,” writes Safiya Sinclair in Cannibal, “we know precisely how to be haunted.” This sharp and subtle, tough and textured, lush and mythical debut, haunts and is haunted by hungers for a broken past and its consequent present. Forms of longing collide with thwarted belonging. The Jamaican-born Sinclair joins Fanon and Césaire, Cliff and Wynter in transforming the colonial wreckage of Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a supple framework. Her island is “full of noises” the noises of history, the sounds of violence. Potent imagery animates Cannibal. “The sea,” for instance, “is “a dark page I am trying to turn.” “Sunset” is “that blood-orange hymn / combusting the year, nautilus chamber // of youth’s obscurities.” And Sinclar displays a fierce and startling rhetoric, as in “Pocomania,” where off-kilter anaphora creates a spell gathering power:
Father unbending father unbroken father
with the low-hanging belly, father I was cleaved from,
pressed into, cast and remolded, father I was forged
in the fire of your self.
Sinclair’s poems of America are as persuasive as her meditations on her childhood island. In a series of “Notes on the State of Virginia” and “One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof,” she drills deep into histories that still haunt the neighborhoods and streets of America. Profound genealogist and historian that she is, you can never forget Sinclair is a singer in the deepest sense. Mermaid and siren, you won’t ever quite catch the agile poet, but you’ll be dazzled as she arcs in these poems into deep and glittering waters. —JC
Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2016. 248 pages. $15.95.
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Economic despair is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s an affliction that affects millions, including the protagonists of Everything I Found on the Beach, the new novel by Welsh author Cynan Jones (The Dig). Like many people struggling to get by, the men at the center of this book pursue drastic economic schemes that they hope will improve their lot. But the results, and the risks, are not what they anticipate.
The book’s main characters share two traits: a sense that they are on life’s periphery and haven’t received their due, and a desire to do what they feel is best for family and friends. Before we meet them, the novel opens with police officers arriving on a beach to discover the body of a man lying on the sand. Most of the man’s fingers have been cut off, and salt water swells the wound in his head. We don’t yet know who the man is, but we soon suspect that he has some connection to the novel’s protagonists.
The first is Grzegorz, a Polish immigrant who has lived in Wales for more than a year. He lives in a house with twenty-eight other immigrants, including his wife, Ana, and their two sons. Among the novel’s more moving moments is Grzegorz’s remembrance of the day he and his wife brought their newborn second son home. Jones mentions the red ribbon tied around the baby’s wrist—a Polish tradition intended to ward off curses. Later, when the boy is able to crawl, they set around him a book, a banknote, a rosary, and a kieliszek (vodka glass). The object the boy goes toward will, according to legend, determine whether he’ll grow up to be an intellectual, a businessman, a priest, or a drunk. Grzegorz is disappointed when the boy goes for the book.
But that’s not Grzegorz’s biggest disappointment. Life in his new country doesn’t provide the security he had hoped for. The decrepit building they live in has graffiti scrawled on the exterior brick wall, including taunts such as “Polish Out.” And his job at a slaughterhouse—Jones writes vivid scenes of “docile and oblivious” cattle entering a pen as metal plates slam against their noses and chests—leaves him not only exhausted and with rimes of dried blood around his fingernails, but also frustrated at the work stoppages the hiring agency enforces to keep its workers ineligible for benefits.
Desperate for money, Grzegorz takes a side job collecting cockles on the beach—undeclared income that he could get sent back to Poland for if he got caught. But the money still isn’t enough to live on, so he and eight others take a bus ride to a dock, where men hire him to go out in a trawler and pick up an airdrop of thirty kilos of cocaine. The mission is successful, at least until Grzegorz’s compass fails, leaving him to drift in the encroaching darkness with no idea where he is.
Life is kinder to the book’s other main character, a fisherman named Hold, but not by much. Hold spends his days baiting prawn pots with scad and herring, and performing odd jobs such as shooting rabbits at the request of a restaurant manager. He, like Grzegorz, supports a family, but the family in this case is that of his childhood friend, Danny, who died three years earlier. Hold wants to help Danny’s widow, Cara, and her son Jake, a desire that assumes greater urgency when Danny’s sister announces that she wants her share of the house she and her brother inherited. Neither Hold nor Cara can afford to buy her out.
On the night that Hold shoots and cleans the rabbits—Jones, as he does occasionally throughout the book, describes the killing of animals in more detail than is necessary—he walks along the beach afterwards and discovers three wrapped packages the size of a fist. When he slits one open, white powder falls out. Hold knows just enough about illicit drugs to know that he has stumbled upon a lot of money.
He also stumbles upon a cell phone near the site of his discovery. In one of many nicely written philosophical moments, Hold decides that the misfortune that led the drugs’ owners to lose such valuable packages will have had purpose if their sale can help him provide for Cara and Jake. “Think of the solution this represents to them,” he thinks. But Hold has no experience running drugs and isn’t sure how to go about selling them. He doesn’t have to wait long for an answer: The phone rings, and a man at the other end says he wants the packages. Arrangements are made for an exchange. Soon, Hold is involved with a disgruntled Irish gangster named Stringer, and his plan to cash in on his find becomes more fraught than he had expected.
You’d think that a novel with drug runners and a dismembered body would be a pulse-pounding work of suspense. To its credit, however, Everything I Found on the Beach is subtle and introspective. The prose throughout is reminiscent of Hemingway: “They’d loaded the fish up onto the quay and the man had gone into the hotel there and the restaurant manager had come out with him and chosen the fish he wanted.” One of the book’s many strengths is that Jones takes the time to investigate the psychology of his characters. We learn that the element of everyday life Stringer missed most during seven years of incarceration was the cold. “When you come out after a long time,” he says, “you’re like a kid for weeks with everything. Cold air, natural cold air like this. Opening a fridge door.” When Hold checks on the fishing nets early in the book, he imagines past tempests and the “treasures” they washed up on the beach. The parallel, and the foreboding, are clear: Even the most devastating events in life can leave behind treasures. The trick is not only to look for them but also to be able to distinguish between the valuable and the dangerous.
One of the messages of Everything I Found on the Beach is that Western Europe is failing many of its residents, immigrants from elsewhere as well as its own citizens. Jones perhaps makes this point too clear with his repeated references to the evils of the slaughterhouse and the dominion of capitalist culture, from the “big European supermarkets moving into the town suburbs with their cheaper prices” to the closure of thousands of small farms. Yet it’s a hard argument to refute, and, more often than not, Jones makes it with melancholy beauty. The novel may not be hopeful, but it’s clear-eyed about the world. As Hold says, “There just aren’t any rules. Just the rule that the sea will keep surprising you.”
Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2016. 184 pages. $15.95.
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The reviewer of Brian Blanchfield’s new book, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, may be tempted to try the compositional constraints Blanchfield outlines in his prefatory note: to turn off the Internet, to avoid consulting the text under discussion, to follow the line of inquiry into personal discomfort and to continue unpacking from there. This reviewer’s memory isn’t that good, however, and as for discomfort, well, this obviously won’t, or shouldn’t, be about me. The more salient point is how difficult it would be to imitate what Blanchfield has done. What an achievement these essays are.
The book’s structural and thematic conceit would seem to be that the truths on offer are provisional, subject to imprecision and error. Each begins with the same mantra or credo, “Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source,” and the book ends with its own variety of error bar, a twenty-page section titled “Correction”—an extended series of annotations offering small and large elaborations on various points raised in the text. To frame the book in these terms, however—thereby evoking recent conversations about truthiness in nonfiction—doesn’t do it justice. By his own admission, Blanchfield is “a complexifier” who “bristle[s] at definitive limits.” Nuance is the name of the game in Proxies, and the best expression of how this subtlety plays out in its pages may come from the essays themselves—from “On Confoundedness,” for example, an essay in which Blanchfield traces his religious upbringing and connects it to his creative work. In a description of his poems that applies equally to Proxies, he writes that his work mostly refuses to “be direct except as one of several modes”; he may “try on aphorism but will not arrive at epiphany, preferring a moment-to-moment revelatoriness.” He concludes that he has recreated in his writing “the immersive experience of enigma which so repelled me as a child.”
The essays are therefore about their subjects, those enigmas the work assays, in the same way one looks about a room. The writing takes place in proximity to its announced rubrics, and while Blanchfield certainly addresses tumbleweed in “On Tumbleweed,” and house sitting in “On House Sitting,” et cetera, these “subjects” serve, in Montaigne’s long tradition, primarily as points of departure or reference, signposts along the road through the author’s rich interiority, or else indicators of those places where inner and outer meet and diverge. (Other titles, by comparison, are more fittingly nebulous: “On Authorship,” “On Abstraction,” “On the Near Term.”) If you’re looking for practical advice on how to put together a teaching dossier, there are better places to go than Blanchfield’s “On Dossiers.” If, on the other hand, you’re interested more broadly in what a dossier entails, à la Roland Barthes, or if you’re interested in what a writer might mean by the movement “from needing to know where I stood to wanting to stand on what I knew,” then this is the essay collection for you.
“On Dossiers” highlights, incidentally, one of those recurrent enigmas—Blanchfield’s relation to and frustration with the academy—that furrow the essays, submerging and reemerging throughout. The more endearing and enduring of these have to do with the conflicted relationships he has with his mother and estranged father (they divorced when he was fairly young), his alternately “nefarious” and “admirable” stepfather, Frank (whose last name Blanchfield acquired upon his adoption, shortly after his mother remarried), and, most touchingly, his relationship with his partner, John. In his treatment of these often fraught and fragile but also strangely durable bonds, as in the book’s disclosures about his sex life (I learned a decent amount about gay porn from reading it), Blanchfield aspires to what he calls the “radical self-baring candor” of the late writer, artist, and activist David Wojnarowicz, most famous for his book Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. Blanchfield’s essays, he says elsewhere, provide “inroads to disinhibited autobiography,” and nowhere is that aspirational vulnerability more striking, and more painful, than when he writes about his family. His life, he says in “On the Leave,” referring to what was essentially his father’s abandonment of him, “is among other things a reply, even a remark on the human abdication that got me here.” That this candor arrives just a few paragraphs after Blanchfield describes a night in 2005 when he was jerked off against a barroom pool table before heading home “in jizzy jeans” is not accidental: “to heal,” he writes in “On Peripersonal Space,” means “a refusal to conceal or be concealed.”
In that same essay, Blanchfield details his mother’s response to his first book, “the highest achievement of my life to that point.” He writes that she was “disgusted” and found it “so offensive and shameful in its ‘display’ she wished every copy could be retrieved and burned.” It’s a remarkable comment on Blanchfield’s generosity and care that, given this “most basic and complete of rejections,” he is still able to find it within him, in time, to suggest to his mother that “there was room for her to be openly, publicly honest about who I am and still disapprove of it.” The passage is among the most moving in the book, not least because the compromise is so extreme. He shouldn’t have to deal with such disapproval, though I’m not so naïve as to imagine this sort of thing isn’t happening all the time. That he does deal with her disapproval, that he finds a way to navigate the tensions between his mother’s rejection of him and their indissoluble bond, attests to the paradoxical places to which these essays boldly take us, again and again.
“Queer it if you can,” Blanchfield writes at the end of “On the Leave,” and it’s worth noting that in addition to all its other fine qualities, Proxies is an eloquent exploration, maybe even a spirited defense, of “the queer heart,” whose drives are “particularly ‘useless’ to forms of procreative increase” (or their textual counterparts). “Not now and not yet,” this heart insists, producing in turn “orders of relationality that obviate or détourn . . . proposing (if not forming) units more supple and adaptive to the precariat fluidity of contemporary living.” Blanchfield is talking about family here, of course, but it’s entirely reasonable to read the structural and thematic conceit of the “proxy” in light of these claims. Perhaps the book’s error bars assert, more than anything else, the possibility of a queer truth, which obviates or détourns traditional registers of reality.
I said at the outset that this wouldn’t be about me, and I won’t renege here, except to mention that, after five years without writing a single review, I read my advance copy of Proxies while sitting on the beaches of a Caribbean island. To my great delight, there was no Internet, no phone—just the companionship of my loved ones, and the companionable essays I’d brought with me. Proxies may indeed be braver than Blanchfield, as he claims in that prefatory note, but the person for whom these essays stand in is someone I’m happy, to paraphrase one of the book’s refrains, to have discovered as though having remembered. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it, in other words. For me, this was it.
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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