Saturday, August 18, 2012

What Remains By Nausheen Eusuf

What Remains
By Nausheen Eusuf
Longleaf Press
At Methodist University
ISBN-13: 978-0-9829290-2-5
20 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

I could not find a false note in this entire collection of sixteen poems by Nausheen Eusuf—unusual for a first chapbook by a young writer. Eusuf delves into the details of her mother’s long illness and death, all the while searching through the varying facets and meanings of fate and home and grief. She balances an understated, observant tone with a number of pretty intricate formal techniques resulting in some very interesting and even exquisite pieces of poetic art.

In the poem Baishakh Eusuf mulls over childhood memories of Dhaka, Baangladesh in short lyrical lines. She says,

When I was a child
I’d watch the fat rain
drops splash noisily
into puddles forming
in the schoolyard.
I’d make sailboats
out of pages torn
from my notebook
and set them asail
the stormy puddles.
I’d race the other kids
But mine always
Went under first.

Later on in the poem we find out that going home is not always a simple matter. The poet explains,

…I want to tell
him that I too can make
the paper sailboats.
I try to recall how I used
to make them, and find
that I’ve forgotten.

Setting up a number of poems on coping with terminal illness, Eusuf, in a prose poem entitled Death’s Visit, describes in graphic detail, not without a touch of humor, Death’s memorable visit to her family’s home. “He was dressed impeccably: silk handkerchief peering out the breast pocket of his suit, gold coff links glittering from his wrists. But his flesh crawled with maggots.” She then goes on to relate how her mother defied death and for her bravery was  condemned to a much longer drawn out affair with much suffering added in.
Eusuf includes a couple of sestinas in her collection. This is not an easy form to work with, especially with a tone so understated and a subject matter so personal. The repetition of the final word in each of the stanzas lends itself more to public poetry.  In the poem Sestina the poet’s child-persona believes she commands legions of angels. She must keep death a bay. Her mother’s  life depends on her watchfulness. All the while death, moving in, threatens. The poet puts it this way,

At dusk, conspiring rain drops whisper
outside the window. What did they know?
In the sterile little cabin, the mother
lies back in bed, inert. The child
pretends to read, to please her aunts.
From a distance, Azrail keeps watch.

In the end the child’s imagination with the help of magic temporarily at least triumphs over the encircling evil. Eusuf satisfyingly concludes the poem this way,

But secretly, the child already knows
what the aunts do not. Entranced, she whispers
to her mother magic words, and keeps watch.

Well done.

The Dialysis Room is another poem of Eusuf’s in which she demonstrates her powers of observation. The poet looks through her father’s eyes at the disturbing scene of tubes and florescence and screens. Nurses, for example appear cordial and correct but also reserved. Human nature can deal with only so much of the personal variety of tragedy. The poet’s father early on takes stock of the others in the room, those,

…who lay tethered
in motionless submission, surveying the room
with sunken eyes…

Then he would also grimly observe,

Every now and then, one of the wasted
forms would disappear, a name erased
from the whiteboard schedule on the wall,
the vacant spot soon, too soon, replaced.

Going Home, a poem in which nothing and everything happens, describes the poet’s plane flight home, presumably for her mother’s funeral, with subtle internal language.  It is really a marvelously well done sonnet. Here are my favorite lines,

I think of home , what separation has meant.
Indifferent, the plane begins its final descent,
the earth turning below us, like the turning
of generations…

In the poem Grief Eusuf delivers detail after detail from the morgue to the mosque to the graveyard and then the aftermath. And in this aftermath she nails it. She says,

It is her glasses, perched so casually
on the TV where she left them last,
her toothbrush in the bathroom, her cotton saris
starched and folded, on the chair, the house
suddenly a museum, and we its curators.

The title poem closes this collection out; it is not among Eusuf’s strongest poems but it is positioned well. I like these lines very much:

And above the rooftops with their potted
Plants, a kite soars in the high blue air,
Straining to be one with wind and sky,

And in the veranda, the sunlit squares
Slope gently eastward, already receding
Into the unknown from whence they came.

Nausheen Eusuf’s poetry shows clear poetic talent and subtle observational powers. I look forward to her future books.

Friday, August 17, 2012

“The I in India and US” Llyn Clague

“The I in India and US”
Llyn Clague
Pure Heart Press c-2012

Review by Timothy Gager

I’m a big fan of double meaning so immediately the title is something which I was interested in solving. Is it the letter “I” or is it the narrator? Is it the United States of America or is it us? The answer to those questions is all of the meanings are true. In this 92 page book of poetry, Clague takes us on an observatory trip as an outside to the country of India. In his poetry you ride buses and cabs; you walk long distances and all along way you meet people and file your thoughts. These thoughts are captured strongly by Clague.

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. --Emily Dickinson

If Emily Dickinson were reviewing this book,  by her own definition, she wouldn’t know if this was poetry or not. The way I would describe “The I in India and US” is that it is poetry written in a narrative story-telling style. Take this for instance (from “The Basics”):

I shuffle off shoes
and enter the Meditation Hall
where a small man,
dressed in white, loose pants and jacket, feet and pate bare,
introduces himself as Jelle (“YELL-eh”).
A 19-year-old Dutchman, three years at the ashram,
He will lead us through yoga’s first steps.

This selection, which I picked for no particular reason, sums up a lot about the style of Llyn Clague’s poetry. The work reads as decorative fiction, but reports events in the way a friend would tell you about his trip. Overall, I found Clague’s trip interesting. He, as our tour guide, gives us the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of a country in a insightful way. After reading, I wanted to have a conversation with the poet to gather more stories and insights of his visit. The book gives you an open and honest impression of his observations, something which I found refreshing.

Recommended to those who define poetry in other ways than Emily Dickinson.

Interview with Kristen Tsetsi author of: Pretty Much True

 Interview with Kristen Tseti author of: Pretty Much True

 With Timothy Gager

I met Kristen Tsetsi eight years ago in an on-line writing group. Her writing has always impressed me. Her new book "Pretty Much True" is out this September.
 Kristen Tsetsi is a writer living in Connecticut. After receiving an MFA, she started sending out, and publishing, some of her shorter stories, one of which was Storyglossia Fiction Prize winner “They Three at Once Were One,” and several of which are found in her short fiction collection Carol’s Aquarium (ebook).

Kristen has taught (expressive writing, play writing, and screen writing at Trollwood Performing Arts School in Fargo, ND; adjunct English professor at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee) and had a number of other jobs, including, but not limited to, freelance writer, job coach, hotel front desk clerk, janitor, and cab driver.
Currently she is a feature writer for the Living Section of the Journal Inquirer newspaper in Connecticut. 

Kristen also co-edited, Volume 11 of American Fiction. (Volume 12, which will release in Fall 2012.)


Timothy Gager: Tell me a little something about “Pretty Much True”?

Kristen Tsetsi: It's the kind of story that's almost entirely character-driven and therefore hard to condense into an exciting pitch. (I won't tell you how many different versions of a single query letter sitting in a file folder. I don't think it's a normal amount.)

So, I will say this: Pretty Much True..., with the early days of the Iraq conflict as the background, drops readers into the grit of war that I don't think a lot of people are aware exists. War grit usually makes people think of soldiers, sweat, and nights awake, but there's a healthy amount of grit for those with a soul mate (for lack of a better phrase) at war. There's the personal experience - emotional and psychological - of hoping the person you love doesn't die right now (or right now...or right now...), but also present during those early days were politicians with their conveniently-safe-at-home opinions, the news media and their spin, and what I think was (or what I perceived to be, right or wrong) a three-part, commonly held belief about those with a lover at war:

1. We were somehow different from other people (that is, we were all part of some closed-off clique)
2. The experience, because we weren't the ones at the bullet-war, was pretty tame by comparison. You know, your basic missing and worry. 
3. We were publicly stoic, probably had a yellow ribbon somewhere, and were almost certainly republicans who supported the president no matter what.

It's a caricature. Pretty Much True... delivers a more realistic portrait, using a cast of characters who are all, in one way or another, reacting to the conflict in Iraq in deeply personal - and therefore, often unpredictable - ways. 

TG: It’s a writer’s dream when they self-publish to get picked up by a publisher. How did this happen with you?

KT: Craig Lancaster, author of the wonderful 600 Hours of Edward (and others), read Pretty Much True... when it was still Homefront and liked it so much that he was confused about why it hadn't been picked up by a publisher. At the time, he didn't have his own press, but a few years later, he started Missouri Breaks Press. Not long after that, Pretty Much True...., in limbo at the time because a publishing deal had just fallen through, was available, and I'm thrilled to say that he wanted it. 

TG:  Did you tweak the manuscript in any way before this incarnation?

KT: A little bit. It had gone through so much cut-throat editing and so many revisions before I even started sending queries to agents (prior to self-publishing) that it was in pretty tight shape already, but some little corrections were made, here and there, and I included a foreword, of sorts, in the form of a letter I wrote to my oldest friend while her husband was deployed. She's actually the inspiration for the character of Denise. Personality-wise only - not behaviorally (that distinction needed to be made).

TG: Your husband was sent overseas to Iraq just as Mia’s husband was in the book, so I have to ask, Is “Pretty Much True” pretty much true?

KT: I couldn't have written about something like a deployment without having experienced it. I really don't think anyone could. Not in a way that would do it justice or reveal some of the lesser-known, more subtle, and maybe even not-talked-about truths. For example, I couldn't have imagined the tilt in reality that occurs. The emotional experience of the book is very true. And even a few small details were yanked from my experience. So, yes. In a way I think matters the most, it's pretty much true.

TG:  Something so close to home that you wrote about as fiction must have been difficult. Can you tell me about the process of separation?

KT: Everything I've written as fiction has been close to home. I tend to get very personal with most of what I write, Pretty Much True... included. Separation took place in the creation of the fiction surrounding the core, but to be able to write it, I actually had to get back in there, sit with my eyes closed, and feel it. Although I didn't start writing it (never mind thinking about writing it) until about a year after he'd come back, much of it was still close enough to bring forward easily.

TG:  Mia spends a lot of time in a vodka haze. Was that you?

KT: Minus a weekend here or there, no (and it was probably wine instead of vodka, because it's inexpensive and tasty). No, I couldn't have finished grad school or held my teaching job at the university where I was working if I'd been either drunk or hungover as often as she is. And grading essays would have been a nightmare. (However, had I been drunk, some of them may have received better grades, and my RateMyProfessor rating would have been much kinder.)

TG:  Name something Mia did in the book, that you would have never done?

KT: 99% of it. Her behavior is a vehicle to communicate the feelings, but she's nothing like me. While Ian was gone, I was Mia's polar opposite, behaviorally. I enjoyed writing Ian (every day), and I certainly never wrote in an email to him about his mother, "You secretly want to fuck her, don't you?"  That's all a fictional scenario, and I really like his mother. But, for many people and in many cases, you can see how that sentiment might be easy to relate to. 

TG: Did people who knew you and your own life gain insight into your life?

KT: They definitely gained insight into part of it. But they also gained insight into the war experiences of the other characters, whose story lines were inspired by real conflicts and situations I was acquainted with through others.  All of their perspectives, whether delivered with humor, sarcasm, sincerity, or in a sputtering rage, offer what I think is unusual insight into the lives of those touched by war (and not just our generation's wars, but wars of the past).

TG:  Would [people having insight] make you uncomfortable?

KT: As much time as I spend online - on FB, on forums, on a blog, and anywhere else - it would probably not seem likely that I'm really very private, but I am. If I think too much about it, I'll probably be uncomfortable with how much of myself I've revealed in fiction, because a lot of it isn't flattering. And, flattering or not, it's my insides, and no one likes to reveal their insides.

But ever since reading Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour," I knew honesty at the core was what made the most interesting reading. So, honesty it was. And, you know, none of my feelings are unique to me. I'm not special. Most other people have probably had the same thoughts or moments, so there's really nothing to be ashamed of. 

TG:  I’ve heard you say that “Pretty Much True” was the best thing you’d ever written because the story was important to you. Explain a little about the importance and urgency?

KT: I've seen a lot of war movies and war TV shows. It's one of those human stories we're interested in, in part because of the drama, in part because we want to have some kind of access to something only a few experience, and in part because it's so endlessly fascinating due to its distance. It's a complex thing that involves so many different kinds of people who are affected in a myriad of ways. 

Most war stories are about the soldier, but after getting to know war, myself, it seemed just as important and every bit as valid to tell my version with the same kind of unfiltered honesty that's made movies like "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" so popular. (I don't think it's the war action that appeals to people as much as the truth represented in each particular film.)

TG:  Seems like everyone today has an opinion about politics and defense of our country. Has any of that led to overstepping boundaries pertaining to differences of opinion in any interactions with a reader? 

KT: Not at all. I made a point of including politics (and being, I think, very obvious about the things that drove me crazy, politicians included) without taking a political position with the book. Characters discuss the war, a protest takes an unexpected turn... But the last thing I wanted to write was something that could be perceived as either partisan or pro- or anti-war. I don't care about positions and labels. I didn't set out to write a manifesto, but a story.

TG:  I’m going to take some of the themes one at a time and play word association with you. Give me the first word that pops into your head
TG: jealousy
KT: Waste
TG: selfishness
TG: joy
TG: anger
TG: abject fear.

TG: Well that was fun... When friends know your husband was deployed, how did they react?

KT: When we spoke, they would ask how I was and how he was. It's hard to know what to say, hard to know what someone needs, hard to know whether to talk about it and what to talk about. I don't even know what to say to my friend whose husband, as I write this, is still in Afghanistan. That's what drove the letter I wrote her, and that became Pretty Much True...'s foreword. 

TG:   Did you get propositioned by men?

KT: I don't think so. A student asked me to lunch, once. Does that count? (I didn't go.)

TG: Each character responds to the war in his or her own unique way. Which character was the most difficult to write?

KT: The downstairs hippie neighbor, Safia. It was difficult to get inside the mind of such an idealist.  

TG:   Tell us about how you felt when you knew you had something “going on” during the writing process?

KT: It first happened sometime during a twelve-hour cab-driving shift, I'm sure. I started driving about six months after Ian came home, and spent twelve hours a day sitting, driving people who had little to say or little they wanted to say. There was a lot of time to think. Sometime in the fourth month, the story started forming, and just before Christmas, I knew I had to quit so I could write it. All I knew was that there was definitely something there.

The second time I felt it was about 45,000 words in. I couldn't figure out why it was so hard to move forward until I discovered the protagonist was at too much of a distance for such an intimate story. It had to be first-person. I deleted the first 80 pages, gave her a new name, and started over completely. There were still the typical novel-writing woes, but the forcing, the struggle, was gone. 

The third time was when I decided she'd drive a cab and have a fare like Donny Donaldson. He was the last big "got it" moment and was probably the book's version of Lebowski's rug.

TG:   What were some of the frustrations that you found while getting the book out there?

KT: While first trying, I pitched a couple of agents who were genuinely interested, but who said they wouldn't be able to sell it because it was literary fiction, and a tough market for it (particularly because I was unknown). That was partly frustrating, but also very encouraging. That they liked it helped give me the confidence to release it myself, initially. 

Releasing it myself, however, meant being self-published. There are a lot of people who won't look at a self-published book, no matter what. That still frustrates me. There are quite a few authors I know whose work has been vetted by trustworthy publications or individuals, but because it wasn't released in the approved way, it's not worth the time of some reviewers or public entities. And I think it's a shame. A different logo on the spine doesn't change the quality of the writing, and if its received a certain level of acclaim, I think it's earned the right to have the stigma wiped off by the gatekeepers of even the most exclusive clubs.

TG:   Who are your writing influences?

KT: In no particular order and for a number of different reasons, Kate Chopin, Dorothy Parker, John Irving, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Margaret Atwood.

TG:   What’s next? Will there be something new on this theme, a “Pretty Much True Too”?

KT: No, no "too." I really hate doing anything twice (even if I tend to gravitate toward a certain set of themes). I'm working on something new, finally, but I'm not far enough into it to say I've started with any real commitment. It's hard to write for fun at the end of a writing day job, so I'm still trying to figure out how to get past page five.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Poet Peter Fulton carves a book of poetry with his new collection: How to Carve an Angel

Poet Peter Fulton carves a book of poetry with his new collection How to Carve an Angel

By Doug Holder

   Carol Weston, a well-respected poet on the Boston poetry scene for many years invited me to a dinner recently at the India Pavilion in Central Square, and for a Stone Soup poetry reading at the Out of the Blue  Art Gallery in Cambridge, Mass curated by Chad Parenteau..  The person of interest of the evening was Peter Fulton. Fulton, a man in his 60’s, is a laid back presence, but as we all know still waters run deep and in Fulton’s case very deep.

  Fulton, was an English major at Boston University in the early 70’s, but later got his degree in law from Suffolk University in Boston. But early on he had the inclination for poetry and music. In the mid-sixties he sang in Boston coffeehouses like the Sword and Stone on Charles Street on Beacon Hill ( At one time known as Beatnick Hill), and other venues.

  Fulton  was born and raised in Mass., and attended the Mt. Herman School in Western, Mass. After listening to Dylan Thomas’ perform Under Milkwood  he decided to create his first verse drama Death of a Worn Man. The play dealt with his grandfather who for years was a fisherman and became burnt out, eventually giving up on his life. It was extremely well-received, and this gave the young writer the impetus to continue with his writing.

  During his time at Mt. Herman Fulton fell under the spell of the sculptor McAlister Coleman, who had a long teaching career at Endicott College. Fulton, who had many long conversations with his mentor Coleman, was asked by the older man “ How do you carve an elephant?” Fulton was stumped for an answer, but Coleman answered for him: “You take everything that is not an elephant." Later conversations dealt with how to carve an angel, among other creative concerns.

  Later Fulton collaborated on a book of poetry and sculpture with Coleman titled: Figures in the Garden of Glen Magna. But the carving an angel idea stayed in his head. He eventually published a book that consisted of his one long poem How to Carve an Angel with a press in Wales, UK headed by Peter Thabit Jones, The Seventh Quarry Press. The title of the work you ask? Why of course: How to Carve an Angel. It is accompanied by a CD that puts music to his poem. The poem is in English , but also translated into Russian by Tatiana Baeva.

  Fulton has performed  his work at the  International Poetry Festival in Wales in June 2012, as well at the famous Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square, the Robert Frost Farm, and the Rockport, Mass. library to name a few venues.

  How to Carve an Angel deals with the last few moments of a sculptor’s life. In the introduction to the book Peter Thabiat Jones writes:

  The main narrative voice is questioning, informative and loaded with integrity. The poem gains and sustains the reader’s attention, as it unfolds into a storyline of the death of a sculptor in a hospital bed. His physical and spiritual transformation is moving, almost elegiac at times, and totally uplifting.

Jones quotes the ending of this lengthy poem ( Fulton told me it takes 23 minutes to read) that has a lilting, terminal beauty:

The voice searches me
in distant, missing woods.
my being resounds
with the reunion of who I am
and who I have been;
who my ancestors will be in my progeny.

 The voice speaks in strange tongues
 whose meaning cannot be explained
 Calling my worlding Come! Come!

Fulton is off again to Wales, but tells me he will be having readings in the near future in the area. Make a point to catch his performance of poetry and music!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA by Eileen R. Tabios: j/j/ hastain


the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA
by Eileen R. Tabios / j/j hastain
Copyright 2012 by Eileen R. Tabios and j/j/hastain
Marsh Hawk Press
East Rockaway NY
ISBN-13: 978-0-9846353-2-0-4-0
ISBN-10: 0-9846353-2-7
Softbound, 83 pages, no price given

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

When Eileen Tabios writes poems you know there is going to be something different, something special and her book with j/j hastain is very special.  The book is split in several sections: first is Tabios’s  ORPHANED ALGEBRA, the haistain’s EPHEMERAL ALLELES MORE THAN      ALLEGED 

These sections are follow by Tabios writing about process and hastain’s essay on the poems in the second section. And there is a lot more by haistain which the reader will find fascinating. 

Tabios’s ORPHANED ALGEBRA is a series of prose poems taken from an exercise, the titles referring to an individual exercise in the book.  For example:


At a party supply store you buy cowboy hats that cost $2 each four flashing
wands that cost $3 each, and two balloons that cost $1 each. You give
the cashier $20. How much change do your receive? What is the depth of the
grief that causes you to stuff dollars into a nearby jar emblazoned with
the photograph of a toothless toddler with a belly larger than its head?
Why do sirens and policecars’ flashing lights unfailingly bring you to a
memory of a poet’s question: “Do two negatives equal a positive? Or do
they simply cancel out one another?

Each of the exercises Tabios presents is made to make you think, what are the answers?  Tabios’s poems project what suddenly strikes you because you associate with it:

Remembering how you survived only forgetting everything
except what you were allowed to keep because it is never used: your
middle name?

Does that one strike home?  There is always something that strikes home in a Tabios poem and that is what makes her poetry so fascinating.

The next section of this book of poetry is j/j hastain’s which deals with questions of science.  Take, for example:

COMPILATION: Longevity is something that can be grown. Requires
nurture. A metal skull or a scale made of flesh. This attempt to measure
method against method. To age another gently. A character tilting toward
another character’s pulsations. In the tilt a tear becomes turbulences. A
body once so imposed upon begins to be able to retort. Proof that the
portions so embedded can be extracted: “I need you with me always”.
That ache within, like with anyone who loves. A coil that previously
bowed without much purpose is now being lubricated with intent to

Both poets, hastain in particular, reorder words and thoughts Is it about the physical or
relationships or does it all come down to sex.  Like Tabios, hastain provides the answer to the questions in the reader’s brain and the reader in turn must work to gather in the disparate pieces that coalesce into a whole.

At the end of the book Tabios and hastain provide some explanations of their writings. Tabios notes that in 2008 she and her husband adopted a 13-year-old boy from Colombia.
She also explains “The poems in Orhaned Algebra are not about my experience but are focused on the orphans I met or learned about during the process of international adoption. I do not clam that those who inspired my poems are representative of all orphans. But to engage in international adoption is, at least in my case, inevitably to learn about other children who may or may not find families, including the stories underlying some statistics noted by Kidsave…”

She also states,  “…how could I not be moved by orphans – how could I remain a poet and not write about orphans? Thus, the “ORPHANED ALGEBRA” poems.

In an essay entitled Engaging My Trans has states, “I identify as Trans/Gendrqueer (both in terms of physiology as well as text). …I speak of my own philosophies of Trans as someone who identifies as Trans. By Trans I mean never only feminine nor only masculine. I mean that you need you to not need me to be solely a woman or a man. I mean embodied-motility. I mean morphability. I mean mutability. I mean please inquire tenderly before assuming. I mean please have your desire to contact me be rooted in our working collaboratively to create future spaces that can include an even celebrate all bodies that in any way transgress the social norm.

As Tabios explains, “Indeed, j/j is moved by xir own circumstances to create new pronouns to reflect xirself. While, as reflected in references to xir, j/j currently uses such pronouns as “xir” and “xe” to reflect “gender free” pronouns that are socially accepted.

And I will stop here and simply urge readers to read and re-read this most fascinating of books I have engaged in a long time.  Read and learn so many new ways to see people, to see the world and perhaps to see yourself. Tabios and hastain have combined to produce something unusual and wonderful.

Zvi A. Sesling is author of King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street, 2010), Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011) and the soon to be published Fire Tongue (Cervena Barva). He is Editor of Muddy River Poetry Review and Bagel Bards Anthology #7.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Third Story by Charles Busch. Produced by Titanic Theatre Company

                                                           Charles Busch--Playwright

The Third Story by Charles Busch. Produced by Titanic Theatre Company and directed by Adam Zahler. Featuring Rick Park. With Shelley Brown, Jordan Sobel, Erin Eva Butcher, Alisha Jansky, and Brett Milanowski. Lighting design by Christopher Brusberg, costume design by Nancy Stevenson, set design by Marc Harpin, sound design by Michael Ricca.

At the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA. Through August 18, 2012.

review by Tom Daley August 12, 2012

After asking us to turn off our cell phones before the show, the sound director of Titanic Theatre Company’s production of Charles Busch’s The Third Story warned us that there would be gunshots and strobe lights in the play. He didn’t warn us that we would spend the rest of the evening with our mouths half-open in astonishment. I never knew exactly whether to laugh or scream in appreciation of the finesse with which this story within a story within a story catapults into the stratosphere of camp and then parachutes back to the tragicomic earth of human (and inhuman) relations—especially the relationship between child and parent, between invention and inventor, between creation and creator, and between original and copy. Everything moved with such speed and finesse that I am still suffering a bit of whiplash from it all.

In playwright Charles Busch’s scheme, a has-been Hollywood screenwriter worries she may be called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and begs her son to collaborate with her on a new screenplay. She hopes a successful partnership might restore her reputation (or at least pay her bills) and distract her from worrying over the McCarthyite wolfpack tracking her spoor. Her importuning and browbeating arouses a lifetime’s worth of resentment from her son, who has apparently dipped his own toe into the pool of playwriting (his mother, to his chagrin and outrage, uncovers a brilliant script he’s been hiding at the bottom of his sock drawer). Recrimination, mutual and assured, escalates as mother insults son for his taste in girlfriends and son reminds mother that one needs a scorecard to keep up with all her marital additions and subtractions. There are more figurative bullet holes in this exchange than in the body of Sonny Corleone in the tollbooth scene of The Godfather. But suddenly, both sides set aside their tommy guns to remember, with a whiff of tenderness, how mother would regale son with Russian folk tales when he was a kid.

The vitriol of these exchanges furnishes the acid bath in which the plate of the hoped-for writing joint venture is etched. A reluctant son embellishes, in spite of himself, his mother’s sketch for the three-tiered narrative: A witch in the forest creates a twin for a young peasant girl to lure a Russian prince into a romantic entanglement. A frigid and driven woman scientist is on the verge of discovering how to create a “double” for an adult human. A gun moll who has kicked her way into becoming Overlady of the Underworld tries to bribe the female Dr. Frankenstein into making a copy of her. She prays the double will survive the malignant tumor that threatens to tear her away from her son, whom she imagines to be incapable of surviving without her.

Under the expert direction of Adam Zahler, these three stories (writing process, fairy tale, gun moll/mad scientist) intertwine with each other through a series of wittily wrought sleight-of-hand segues and trompe l’oeil twists. The tales, and the actors who tell them, whiz by on jet skis, each crisscrossing each other’s wake, jumping into each other’s controls, bouncing off each other’s waves.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Branches, the Axe, the Missing Charlotte Pence

The Branches, the Axe, the Missing
Charlotte Pence
Black Lawrence Press

Review by Rene Schwiesow

“However the story began, we know/its middles, know/how taming fire kicked us/out of arrested development.”  Pence spends time in “The Branches, the Axe, the Missing” delving into humanity’s origins and, in doing so, her images may have the ability to kick each reader from their own arrested development, coaxing the reader to ponder historic and personal evolution even as so many attempt to forget personal histories, negate the fact that those histories bring us to the here and now.

In addition to “The Braches, the Axe, the Missing,” Pence is the author of two award-winning chapbooks and the editor of “The Poetics of American Song Lyrics,” an anthology that considers song lyrics as appropriate for study in a literature classroom.  She has received numerous awards including the Discovered Voices award and a fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission. 

Pence has been widely published and with lines such as “Sit, sit down with me.  The darkness quiets if we watch it together,” that is no surprise.

Maybe the first word
we finally said sitting around that fire,
everyone chewing on red
colobus monkey, no one speaking was

Words, we have found, are helpful to communication and, certainly there are times when silence can be awkward.  Still the line, “The darkness quiets if we watch it together,” shows a touching beauty in sharing something in silence.

“The Branches, the Axe, the Missing,” speaks not only to origins but to change and/or a sense of loss in relationship, in life.

It is thirty-four degrees.
She wants to be warm, eat that leftover lasagna, drink one glass of
boxed red wine.
The engine idles.
She has returned from her last act as a married woman:
mailing the new-ex his car title.  He wanted a copy faxed and
the original over-nighted.

Endings that we cannot forget if we tried.

. . .jab-jab-jabbing
that dark until the sounds flee back to the
quiet: sizzle-spits.  Shifts of logs carboned
and bone-thin.  Ashed by morning.

Pence places nuggets of personal crisis and transformation quietly in between life’s origins, its flame, its hunger, its desire to become.  This is not a book to be taken on surface content, be ready to fan the embers of your own consciousness and contemplation.

Rene Schwiesow is co-host of the wildly popular South Shore Poetry venue, The Art of Words in Plymouth, MA.  She currently writes for The Plymouth Center for the Arts in The Old Colony Memorial newspaper, also in Plymouth.