Tag Archives: poetry

Crawling Back to You

Breakup/Breakdown – Poems by Charles Jensen (Five Oaks Press, $12.99, 42 pages)

Can one find hope in poems of heartbreak and loss?

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This is a fascinating chapbook of poems by Charles Jensen.  These are poems about heartbreak and loss.  After all, we lose things in life, like people and laptops and places:

I understand that/purpled anger in her/face, the way she’s/aware she was/just a pitstop in/someone else’s/marriage. To know/you are not/the one, but just another one.

These are also poems about disruption, the kind that comes with rapid change, with the shedding of the present for the future:

Disruption/is the pulling apart of two independent lives. A rupture/but I didn’t know it until it was too late.  Everything we’d placed/inside those years spilled out/like blood escaping from a vein./Love, my friends, should never/be entrusted to the heart, whose job/is to push away the only thing/the world will ever offer it.

(Disruption, previously published in HIV Here + Now.)

Jensen understands that life is about accepting the changes that are beyond our control:

We shake our lives loose like a braid/untwirling at the end of a long day/I want everything and nothing that belongs to you…

And finally, there’s the notion of place.  A place is ours, if only for a transitory period.  We occupy a space for a moment, like time travelers:

I move into a one bedroom overlooking Glassell Park and/the Los Angeles Rivers and the 5 and the hills of Echo Park/between Division and Future streets.  Division runs drunk/through the neighborhood, splitting Mount Washington/into two separate lives.  Future Street rises straight up the face,/turns sharply and then goes down to just one lane, a 90 degree/curve and, from time to time, gets lost in the spaghetti of streets/only to reappear suddenly on the far side of the hill, shunning/drivers with its abrupt end in a one-way alley.  The apartment/gets a lot of light, and at night the yellow glow of porch lamps/and street lamps dot the dark landscape like a pattern for the/Lite Brite I played with as a child, plugging in plastic pegs to make/something beautiful appear…

(Between Division and Future Streets, previously published in Diode.)

I very much enjoyed reading and rereading these poems by Charles Jensen, whom I feel I now know as a friend.  If the world is something we cannot fathom, we can understand a fellow traveler who is headed down the same highway in search of peace, comfort and understanding.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Charles Jensen is a graduate of Arizona State University, and is the Director of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

 

 

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Alive and Kicking

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Alive at the Center: Contemporary Poems from the Pacific Northwest (Pacific Poetry Project; Ooligan Press, $18.95, 277 pages)

“This is something new in our shared lives, how she turns so gentle.” I Am Pregnant with My Mother’s Death by Penelope Scambly Schott

Nine editors selected 151 poems for inclusion in this anthology. The poets, each represented by one or more poems, live in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland. What they have in common is a sense of un-commonality, representing the free spiritedness of the Pacific Northwest. This free spiritedness is reflected in “an array of poems that challenge… preconceptions, including those of what a poem might be.”

The reader is encouraged to “think your own thoughts,” about the worthiness of each composition. I was pleased that this buffet serving of art allows the reader to sample different styles and tastes in order to discover what resonates with one’s own life experiences. I identified with the more traditionally-styled poems, but others will no doubt be drawn to the ones with youthful edginess and rebellion.

It was a joy to discover poets whose work I want to read more of, including Alex Winstaley, Christoper Levenson, Lilija Valis, Catherine Owen, Kagan Goh, Susan Rich, Kathleen Holme, Jesse Morse, and Penelope Scambly Schott. The rainy weather that these three locales share apparently fosters rather than dampens creativity. Let’s hope that Alive at the Center is but the first release of many comprehensive – insightful yet challenging – collections of poetry from the Pacific Northwest.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

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A Whiter Shade of Pale

Bacchae Robin Robertson

Bacchae by Euripides: A New Translation by Robin Robertson (Ecco, $19.99, 128 pages)

The final work by one of the three greatest Athenian playwrights and poets might have been on the list of required reading assignments for a serious 19th century student. Not so for this mid-20th century university student whose classics exposure was confined to the statues, temples and artifacts of the era in which Euripides lived.

Bacchae: A New Translation arrived in the mail unbidden, a slender advance review copy that proclaimed its relevance in today’s world. Feeling a need to round out my classical education with a sampling of literature, I worked my way through the book, devoting ample time to the play as well as the most helpful ancillary material.

The book’s elements included a well-developed preface written by Daniel Mendelsohn that provided ample contextual and historical information for the novice reader of Greek tragedies. The introduction by Scottish writer and translator Robin Robertson further set the reader on a path toward comprehending the play. A family tree of the main characters set forth the relationships in a graphic. And lastly, a glossary complete with pronunciation guide appeared after the body of the text. It is assumed that these key elements remained as parts of the final, published version.

As to the take away, alas, most of the insightful and relevant themes touted on the cover flew over this reviewer’s head. Perhaps the extreme drama and graphic nature of the violence contained in the play was just too much. Alternatively, the silent statues, temples and painted vases of the same era held immense appeal nearly five decades after the captivating lectures presented by Dr. Crawford H. Greenewalt, Jr. have nearly faded from memory.

Recommended for students of the classics.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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Brand New Day

Oxford Messed Up: A Novel by Andrea Kayne Kaufman (Grant Place Press, $24.95, 336 pages)

“I was lost, double crossed with my hands behind my back…”   Van Morrison (“Brand New Day” – Moondance album)

Yale grad Gloria Zimmerman is so germ-phobic that she endures an overnight flight from Chicago to London and then an excruciating car ride to Oxford University without peeing.   When she and her nearly bursting bladder finally reach her flat – and the private bathroom that she will sanitize and make her own – she discovers to her horror that she must share it with a neighbor.   Not only that, but he is messy and dirty – and he is occupying the toilet when she arrives.

Gloria is a Rhodes Scholar who is studying feminist poetry.   Her untreated Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has always prevented her from forming close friendships.   But even though flatmate Henry Young, a music student and son of a priggish and disapproving Oxford don, is an “unrefined, germ-infested oaf,” he intrigues her.   Or, more to the point, his taste in music does.   They share a love of the music – and the poetry – of the iconic rocker Van Morrison.

That small spit of common ground is enough for love to wedge its foot between the door and the jamb.   Henry embraces Van Morrison’s “fatalistic optimism” and dedicates himself to releasing Gloria from the prison of her cleaning compulsions.   But is it enough to keep the door open when the true extent of Henry’s vile germs becomes apparent?

Author Andrea Kayne Kaufman is a lawyer and a professor of educational leadership at DePaul University in Chicago, where she serves as chair of the Department of Leadership, Language, and Curriculum.   In an interview on her website, she speaks of her belief that people can overcome “irrevocable” damage with hard work and hope.   Her characters Henry and Gloria both view themselves as unlovable.   But as Van Morrison wrote, “It’s a marvelous night for a moondance…” and attraction compels them to muster the strength to try to help each other

Experts on OCD have raved about Kaufman’s sensitive and accurate portrayal of the condition as viewed from the inside.   But readers of all stripes will appreciate Oxford Messed Up for its unique take on what it means to love another human being, warts and all, and for its profound message of hopefulness.   Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Oxford Messed Up is also available in a trade paper version for $14.95, and as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

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Astral Weeks

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (Anchor, $15.95, 320 pages)

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“We were all crazy, that was a given.”

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.”   Van Morrison (“Astral Weeks”)

This is an oddly engaging novel despite a number of very clear flaws in the telling of the story.   For one, it is difficult to stick with a tale stacked with characters that are simply unlikable.   Our male protagonist, Harry Quirk, is a poet married (but not for long) to Luz.   They live in Brooklyn and he writes “strict poems,” meaning formal ones of the type whose time came and went very long ago.

“When I was a wet-eyed boy starting out in the poetry racket, I pledged my lights to metered, rhymed verse.   My models were old-fashioned, and so was I.”

Harry engages in many irritating behavior patterns (What did Luz ever see in him?), the worst of which is the habit of picking at and cutting his own skin until a severe infection results.   Oh, but this is part of the story because it’s the reason that Harry seeks medical treatment and is first seen by Luz the nurse.

Harry’s best friend is a woman that’s he’s known for decades.   This shouldn’t be major but it is to Luz, who is convinced beyond a doubt that her husband is having a mad affair with this woman.   If Harry is not likable, neither is his long-term woman friend and Luz is definitely not.   In Harry’s words, “I was deeply tired of her unpredictable oscillations between abject devotion and irrational psychodrama.”

“She had wrecked everything I loved with her furious, insecure need to control my thoughts, my mind, my body, like a one-woman government.”

Harry doesn’t make any money with his poems – at least he hasn’t in decades.   But when he splits from Luz (“I was a wild animal who’d been trying to live in a cage.”) he’s able to rely on the kindness of his friend James who runs a very improbable business.   The business is called Custom Case, which designs and builds one-of-a-kind guitar cases for ultra-millionaire rock stars.   Yeah, right…

True to form, however, even our good man James is not likable.   “James was pragmatically cold, deep down, for all his seeming generosity and caring towards his wife.”

One of the key and basic issues with this novel is that Harry’s male voice just does not sound authentic coming from a female writer.   This is not to say this can’t work, it just doesn’t work here especially when Harry’s thoughts are often expressed in very dense language.   And some of the writing by author Christensen is close to painful, as in this sample:  “The brown shingled beach houses of the rich and privileged sat humped amid bare woods and dunes like big harmless cartoon bears.”   Cartoon bears?   Really?   (Maybe this is more embarrassing than painful.)

Still, what keeps the reader involved is the desire to see Harry find and develop a new life free of the shackles of Luz, who “twists any idea  until it matches her need to be right.”   Harry’s a man who’s been freed by accident – by a simple twist of fate – and we wonder if he’ll make the best of the opportunity.

At its end, this is a novel about a human who must find a way to let go of what was lost (like so much of the past in our own lives).   He must do this in order to move on with grace.

Extremely patient, tolerant and forgiving readers may like this story.   It’s hard to see that being true for most readers.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Both Sides, Now

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (Riverhead Books, 232 pages, $15.00)

“Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet.”   Angela Meyer

One can’t/ have it/ both ways/ and both/ ways is / the only/ way I/ want it.   – A. R. Ammons

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Both Ways… is a collection of eleven short stories written by Maile Meloy, the title taken from the one-sentence poem posted above.   Meloy is a writer with a style that’s so cool its chilling; at times she will remind the reader of Joan Didion.   And at least one of the stories here (“Liliana”) reads like something Didion might have written for The Twilight Zone.   In Liliana, a man in Los Angeles hears a knock on the door and opens it to find his grandmother.   Perhaps this does not sound so unusual, except for the fact that his grandmother died two months earlier.

The ten other stories are much more conventional and share a common theme.   These are stories of people who have settled into their lives as they are, but see the chance to escape and live an alternate existence.   These are people who are tempted by other people and other places.   Meloy sets this up so that some of the story subjects elect not to change their lives while others do.   Since each protagonist actually wants to have it both ways – retaining his/her current life while also having it change – not one of them finds true satisfaction…  The exception is the final story, where one man feels both “the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.”

This compilation of stories is thus brilliantly structured, placed in a very deliberate order like the songs on a classic record album.   As with a great recording, one is tempted to listen to the songs (re-read the stories) to find the messages that were not obvious the first time through.   Part of Meloy’s intelligence is displayed by the manner in which she disguises things.   The first few tales are set in the remote state of Montana (far from L.A.) and the reader comes to think that maybe all of them will take place on that stage.   They do not.

Meloy also sets up situations that make you, the reader, think you know exactly what’s coming along before she fools you.   In one story (“Red from Green”), for example, we see that an older man and a young woman both possess – and practice with – loaded guns before he considers making an uninvited move on her.   Someone is going to get shot, right?   Well, no, but you will need to read that story to find out what does occur.

College literature professors are going to have a wildly great time showing their students the hidden meanings and life lessons buried in Meloy’s seemingly calm and quiet prose.   But you don’t need to pay tuition to enjoy these tales of yearning, wisdom and acceptance.   For the price of a trade paperback you can slide into a seat in Meloy’s classroom.   Take good notes!

Joseph Arellano

Well recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher (Riverhead/Penguin).   “Maile Meloy is a true and rare find.”   Richard Ford


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Of Missing Persons

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke (Riverhead Books; $25.95; 320 pages)

Someone once wrote: “We fear death the way children fear going into the dark.”   Meghan O’Rourke

There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading/ When things that seemed so very plain/ Became an awful pain/ Searching for the truth among the lying/ And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying…   But you’re still with me.   George Harrison (“The Art of Dying”)

Meghan O’Rourke has presented us with a serious, somber and thoughtful memoir about the grief she suffered when her mother died at the age of fifty-five.   Although her mother’s age is noted, one has the impression that she would have felt the same burden if her mother had lived to be 100, as O’Rourke was simply unprepared to live in a world without its (to her) most important resident.   As she states so well:  “One of the grubby truths about a loss is that you don’t just mourn the dead person, you mourn the person you got to be when the lost one was alive…  One night (my brother) Liam said to me, as we were driving home from my dad’s to Brooklyn, ‘I am not as sad as I was, but the thing is, it’s just less fun and good without her.'”

In order to deal with her pain, O’Rourke conducted a personal study of death, the standard fear of it, religious beliefs and traditions surrounding it, and the vast amount of research that has been done on the human grieving process.   She even touches upon grief in animal colonies.   One discovery she made in the process is that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief has been grossly misinterpreted.   These were not intended to be the stages that mourners – those left alive – go through; they were intended to represent the stages that the chronically ill pass through.

O’Rourke is at her best when she discusses her own fears with us.   She has been afraid, since childhood, of the notion of death but it remained an abstract, if frightening, notion up until her mom’s passing.   Then her grief became all-encompassing and something she could not put aside in order to lead a “normal” life.   Grief, in a sense, made her insane for a period of time but it also taught her some very valuable  lessons – the chief among them being that one has to focus on death in order to truly appreciate life.   As her father told her many months after his wife’s death, he had always focused on what he didn’t have; now he had learned to look at what he did have in the world and in the universe.

After a loss you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead.   It doesn’t come naturally.

There’s a sense of accepting humbleness that permeates O’Rourke’s account – although she was raised a Catholic, she refers numerous times to Buddhism.   If there’s a weakness in the telling, it’s a factor that naturally affects most memoirs, a tendency to make one’s own life sound more important than that of the others that share the planet with the writer.   And, like Julie Metz in Perfection, O’Rourke tends to tell us more than we actually want to know about her social (meaning sexual) life.

At one point, O’Rourke comes off as strangely naive in regard to social relationships.   At the time that her mother died (it’s Christmas), an old boyfriend – whom she once dropped without explanation – comes back into her life, and O’Rourke wonders why, “…he always seemed to be holding back – why, I did not know.”   The reader wants to scream back at her, “Because you dumped him when you went away to college!”   (The ex was simply acting like a normal, scarred, self-protective human being.)

But these are minor points, because O’Rourke succeeds quite well in making us examine death as something both macro and micro; as something that must be fully understood before we can make realistic choices about what is most important in our lives.   In her almost philosophical approach to examining death and dying, she has written not only a monumental love story for the person who has gone missing in her life, she has also placed death in its natural and proper context.

(I think I wanted to grow up to be my mother, and it was confusing to me that she already was her.)

This is, in the end, a work about acceptance – the good with the bad – survival with death, the sudden eclipse of a life and eternal love.   O’Rourke masterfully teaches us about the art of dying, a matter for both hearts and heads (minds).

Very, very well done.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “She is gone, and I will be, too, one day…  all the while my brain will be preoccupied by the question of death.   And that makes it hard, at times, to pay my bills…”


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