Sunday, August 15, 2010

Brief Reviews

My longtime colleague at The George Washington University, where I used to teach, Daniel Gutstein (pictured above) shares with me an interest in writing across genres. He has published poetry, fiction, and drama, as well as work in cross-genre forms as the prose poem. Although his work has appeared in numerous literary journals, and several of his chapbooks have been brilliant surprises, oddly enough Non/Fiction is his first full-length collection. The book veers between short fiction and memoir, and between story and prose poetry, blurring those boundaries as it goes. The pieces explore a variety of locales, including Washington D.C., Florida, and the American west, as well as Israel and elsewhere overseas. The bulk of these pieces focus on a working class milieu, although the stories cross with some frequency into describing characters living a creepily rootless yuppiedom. The book is particularly startling for its array of cultural mixing; in these stories, identity is always in flux, even as some characters rigorously assert its stability. The pieces are full of the unexpected, both in the quirkiness of the characters and in the purposefully torqued, poetic prose. “I’d sat on the stone with Mrs. Kelly, the black landlady who recalled the nervous white boy stepping, bayonet-first, beside the convenience mart. Part of the town bruised, she explained, her grey-black hair combined into a grey-black knot. “ It’s not too much of a stretch to say that in its idiosyncracy and gnarled prose and concern with character and culture, the work here resembles the short fiction of the great Isaac Babel. At times the twisting language even takes on a postmodern opacity. A unique book by a unique writer who’s capable equally of the outrageous and the poignant.

I read it back in early spring, but A Model Year, by Gina Myers, is as good a first book of poems as I’ve come across in awhile and has stayed clearly in my mind. The poems are understated, often memorable, and frequently haunted and melancholy, which may come as a surprise to those who know Myers’ energetic work in social activism and local arts in her troubled state of Michigan. There’s a casual tone these poems that can be associated with the New York School (Myers lived for a time in NYC), but the social environment and individual consciousness on display here has a moodiness that seems more connected to Midwestern financial and emotional dourness, and the poems featured a more denuded landscape than one typically finds in New York School verse. “April snow & no/way to go, no turning/forward, motion lost/flickers across the wind-/shield & is forgotten./No scene waiting/to be seen, no unforgiving/space, empty drawer/& shutters shut.” The book’s final, title piece, “A Model Year,” attempts a more extended sequence, and almost stalls on its carefully crafted restraint, but ultimately works because, like in the rest of these poems, underneath the melancholy is a fierce desire to live a meaningful, socially engaged life.

Two chapbooks by Sandra Simonds, Used White Wife and the self-published Made From Scratch, are fascinating and energetic reads. In UWW, Simonds’ flair for high octane, historically detailed Surrealism takes a flarfy turn for the outrageously comical: “You’re not supposed to fuck your first cousin, expert/ on Reform Era pamphlets,/ or eat an oatmeal-flavored Powerbar on/the toilet. Even my dog, Scruffy-Pie, knows/not to shit in the room/where you sleep or sleep/where you’re not supposed to think of the clitoris.” UWW is hilarious, but also psychological insightful, a rollick through the ages that turns up a lot of hidden cultural embarrassments. Made From Scratch has a few outrageous moments, but seems more personal, historically specific, and sad by turns, and at times its emotional power runs deeper than that in the other chap. Both books feature Simonds’ startlingly rich vocabulary. She’s a writer who is only continuing to grow into the range of what she can do.

Another impressive first full-length collection, Occultations, by David Wolach, is more hardcore avant than the above books. The range in Wolach’s work is first and foremost formal, combining surprising uses of spacing, multiple overlays of text, and visual art, among much else. The book’s first of several extended poem sequence, “transit” is both the most lyrical and the most powerful and direct in the book, dealing with the author’s physical pain but also revealing a social awareness that’s too broad and informed to be solely an exploration of individual body and self, and the poem’s lyricism remains jaggedly unconventional. “What are we to do now/dark drawing its own outline/the wild/ child tapping terror pane/ your lands and grooves/ evidence/ of hallas, your hands their re-appearing/act/ leaves glass behind leaves all possible codes behind/” The later, even more experimental pieces are fascinating as well, and are full of political insight and outrage, as well as a sophisticated understanding of theory and culture. If there’s something occasionally a bit first bookish about Occultations, it may be that at times, Wolach wants to throw everything at once at the reader. The book is full of busy pages, to put it mildly, and the greater minimalism of the final piece, “ book alter (ed),” makes for a crucial contrast that wraps up the work nicely. Still, Wolach takes a lot of necessary risks, and Occultations is a demanding, rewarding book.

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