Thursday, October 10, 2013

God’s Naked Will & other sacrilege


God’s Naked Will & other sacrilege
By C.D. Mitchell
BurntBridge Press
159 pages

Review by Thomas Gagnon 

            First-time author C. D. Mitchell excels at making scenes.  He often opens with sensational information, which evolves into a drama both compelling and realistic—no contrived plot twists here.  But also often, something is missing.  Most of these stories are all about their scenes, while the characters—if not missing in action—stay two-dimensional.
            First, the positive, and there is plenty of positive to accentuate.  Mitchell does create utterly memorable scenes.  Near the end of the first story, “Clovis Clementine,” the already horrible life of Clovis takes an especially ghoulish and ghastly turn.  During a flood, he imagines that dead bodies rise up and talk to him—at first, a high school classmate that he had attacked and killed, and later, at three-pages’ length, “the Colonel” who urges him to join the devil’s ranks.  A scene like that has lasting impact, and there are many such scenes throughout this short story collection.
            One other scene—a favorite of mine—occurs in the title story, “God’s Naked Will.”  It is a dialogue over the phone between a Pentecostal preacher, Mooney, and a receptionist at an escort service, absurdly named God’s Own Escort Service: A Touch From Above With Every Date.  The absurdity continues with the line “God’s Own Escort Service.  How can we touch you today?,” but the ensuing conversation takes unexpectedly dark turns:
            “I want someone who knows how to keep her mouth shut.  But I also want someone
            who knows what she’s doing.  And she must be white.”
            “What are you, a bigot?”
            “No.  But my faith prohibits inter-racial marriages.”
            “Your faith probably prohibits premarital sex, too.”   (55)
Such unexpected darkness—or, at best, murkiness—is a strength in all Mitchell’s stories.
            Also positive, Mitchell boldly presents distasteful issues and situations.  The mere concept of the Lord’s army (introduced almost right away in “Clovis Clementine”) induces shivers.  And it gets more distasteful than that, in story after story: schizophrenia, suicide, adultery, horrific hypocrisy, capital punishment, voyeurism, verbal abuse, and sexual perversions.  Nor are these evils hurriedly set aside.  Rather, they stay front and center, throughout.  For instance, the sexual perversions in the story “Original Sin”—especially, lust masquerading as nudism—never quite disappear.  Although the bride, Lesley, knows ahead of time that she will be getting married nude in front of strangers (on p. 124), she cannot reconcile herself to the thought (on p. 139).  On the contrary, she suggests to the groom, Zach, that they leave as soon as possible.  They don’t.  Lesley cannot escape from human sin.  Consequently, neither can the reader.
            This is impressive.  What is not impressive is the lack of characterization in most of these stories.  Clovis is not so much a person as he is a misfortune incarnate; the same is true of another character with severe mental illness, Sally in “Job’s Comforter.”  Although Lani in “Stud Fee” has interesting moments, Mike, the stud, does not.  Elias in “Healing Waters” achieves an anti-climax rather than a climax.  And so on, with one exception: Reverend Mooney.  Mooney takes on dimension because he is both astoundingly hypocritical and apparently unaware of his hypocrisy.  He contains a world of contradictions, which are not amusing and yet are not wholly disgusting, either.  It is clear that the unrealistic tenets of Mooney’s own faith are partly to blame for his faults.
            Each story is a mix of the well-done and the problematic.  Since schizophrenic Clovis believes in the Fundamentalist Christian concept of the Rapture, it is apt that he fears the flood is a particularly ominous sign.  But, the many similes describing Clovis’ schizophrenia merely strain the brain.  The can of mace in “Job’s Comforter” is a Chekhov’s gun that never goes off—an excellent aspect of the story.  But, the metaphor of Job’s comforter is utterly perplexing.  Whereas Darleen does aim to comfort her schizophrenic daughter, Sally, Job’s comforters do not comfort Job.  Other stories are more (or less) out-of-balance than these two.
            For all its imperfections, however, some stories in the collection do linger in the mind.  Important questions about faith are framed by intensely dramatic (but plausible) situations.  Yes, it is a bumpy ride, but it is an enjoyably bumpy ride with resonance. 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Brightness Fall Poems by Ellen Steinbaum

Brightness Fall
by Ellen Steinbaum
CW Books
Cincinnati OH
Copyright © 2013 by Ellen Steinbaum
83 pages, softbound, no price listed

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

To the long line of women who have written books of “confessional” poetry, we can add Ellen Steinbaum, whose most recent book is Brightness Falls. Steinbaum’s poetry is  gentle and sympathetic to our senses, certainly as revealing as her predecessors who write about their lives and loves.      

There are four sections to this book, the first, “Begin Again”  starts with untethered and is followed by begin again, two fifteen line poems in which we learn she is alone with, in the first a “solace/of pillows” and in the second “with beach grass blade/for compass.”

In the first scenario we can see her alone in her bed, the empty pillow next to her where he late husband would have been,  something everyone experiences with the loss of a partner.  In the second poem there is another recollection with which we can associate, our confusion at suddenly being alone and like wind blowing through grass and the grass perhaps bending in so many directions, we find ourselves directionless, unsure of where we want to  go or should, not metaphorically, but actually.

In one of her longer poems Steinbaum reveals what life was like for her before she met her new husband, though we do not learn how much time has passed after the death of her first husband before the new relationship.

Before I Met Him

I was fine
gave dinner parties
grew a garden
read the papers
paid my bills
repainted rooms and
bought new dishes
went to ballets
wrote my will
had a new book out
visited family  
tried new recipes
tried new wines
made new friends and
wrote new poems
had (small) adventures
I was fine
I was fine
had (small) adventures
wrote new poems
made new friends and
tried new wines
tried new recipes
visited family
had a new book out
wrote my will
went to ballets
bought new dishes
repainted rooms and
paid my bills
grew a garden
gave dinner parties
I was fine
I was fine

Males and females can associate with the emotions of having a departed spouse and the need to move on in life. Perhaps everyone’s method is different, but the underlying attempts to restart and reshape are all there.

Unlike some who might search for romance and a new beginning, there are those who do not consciously make the effort.

widow’s walk

she didn’t want to
want again
yearn for arms
around her
arms holding her
new kisses
skin warmed
by new hands

she didn’t want to dance
drop dizzily
from brightness
to deep shadow
want to go instead
on her even way

stay small and
folded from the light
never venture
into crowded streets

she never wanted
she never

This poem reflects both the prelude to hope and the movement to the next phase of a life, from to companionship to love confirmed by the first stanza of:

there will be worse (I)

after the argument
he says there will
be worse and I
think those
are words of love

There are times when readers wonder if Steinbaum is writing about her deceased husband or her new mate. There are times when readers are left with no doubt it is about the present and the future, and while brightness may fall, a new sun rises for her.

This book is a “must read” for everyone who has survived and recovered from loss.  It is for everyone else as well.

Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Press)
Author,  Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva Press)
Publisher, Muddy River Books
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review

Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies 7& 8

Sunday, October 06, 2013

LET THE BUCKET DOWN: A Magazine of Boston Area Writing

LET THE BUCKET DOWN: A Magazine of Boston Area Writing
Editor: Joseph Torra
Managing Editor: Molly Torra

Review by Doug Holder

Somerville poet and writer Joe Torra has a long history on the literary scene as a novelist, poet, publisher, and teacher. I was glad when he told me he started a new literary magazine: Let the Bucket Down: A Magazine of Boston Area Writing.

There is much to recommend in this new venture by Torra. There is an essay by Robert Dewhurst about the birth of Measure magazine, the brainchild of the late Boston, Black Mountain School, poet John Wieners. I met Wieners late in his life through his late friend Jack Powers (The founder of Stone Soup Poetry) and I knew of his magazine. But this essay filled in the blanks about the Boston literary scene in the 50s and 60s, and how one went about putting together a little magazine in days before the Mimeograph Revolution. 

Joe Dunn, has a brilliant poem about Boston’s infamous Molasses Flood, with images of Bowler hats floating on a sweet, lethal sea. Bubbles of death percolate from the depths, topped by these drifting, Bowler tombstones.

Roland Pease, founder of Zoland Books has a nice piece about his seminal years as a writer and publisher. He has been part of the Cambridge, Mass. scene since 1963, and is a rich trove of local literary history. Also included is poetry by well-known faces such as Carol Weston, an essay by Daniel Bouchard, poetry by Joel Sloman, photos from the Word of Mouth Poetry Series of the 80’s and 90’s, and fiction and non-fiction by many other folks.

Poet Ruth Lepson, who I had the pleasure to interview years ago, has a fine piece about Robert Creeley and the jazz musician Steve Lacy. When Lacy was at the New England Conservatory (where Lepson teaches), both he and Creeley collaborated with their music and poetry. Lacey and Creeley both loved improvisation and the energy of irresolution in their art.

This new magazine is a very welcomed addition to the literary scene…highly recommended.