because God had translated them: A Review of Dimitris Lyacos’ With the people from the bridge

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Translated by Shorsha Sullivan

Both postmodern and high modernist poetry have a context of traumatized grand narratives, reflections of human consciousness (both writer and reader) damaged by and aware of their own damages, whatever the source. In the highest sense, both approaches to writing use language to pull everyone involved up short to a face-to-face blinking contest with reality. For the real owns rider and horse, and language obscures this fact by its severing nature—and this explains why postmodern literature is such a difficult medium in most hands. Only a writer who has studied and read the deepest narratives will succeed, reaching for and pulling up out of the muck brief remnants that add much-needed weight to the radical fragmentation that is contemporary life’s relationship to personal and cultural histories, not to mention death and reality. This is the gift of high modern and postmodern art. In his trilogy Poena Damni Dimitris Lyacos proves it’s a gift we’re still (for now) willing to accept:

As long as a match stays alight. As much as you have time
to see in the room that flares and fizzles out. The images holding, briefly, then
fall. Some lines you manage, they are
gone, another match, again. Pieces missing, empty pages, match, again. Comes
across an unknown work and sticks
in your mind. And where are the dwelling places of
the wicked. Ask those who pass beside you. Match, some smudges parts again
like those of the Testament,
then some of his pieces, then mine. The light so brief
that you don’t have time to write, in the dark you can’t
see if the page is blank. You write, a match, words fall-
ing on top of each other, another page, write, again a
match…. (Z213:EXIT)

Delicious, isn’t it?

Lyacos’ Poena Damni is powerful because the work is stitched in all its seams with a very deeply grounded lyrical and inward-looking precision. Most attempts at post (and post-post) modernism end up weak, scattered and afraid of scaffolding for fear of ridicule. In other words, something you only want to read once, with, at the end, a sense of relief that you are still someone special. Relief is overrated.

Begin getting to know Poena Damni as you read by searching references and collective human history and memory. You’ll get triggered for touchstones and allusions and be on your way to complete presence with the text. Soon, instead of knowing until you’re nauseous exactly where you stand (and do not stand) in today’s global economy, for example, you’re good and lost (in the best literary way) on the confusing road to a questionable salvation with each refugee, seeker and lost soul among the torturers, prisoners, survivors, lovers, friends and worshipers who haunt the trains, bridges, villages and churches that inhabit Lyacos’ (and our) world. It’s a real masterwork in that it accomplishes the avant-garde task of throwing the reader in all directions simultaneously. It’s a hearty meal, a marvelous, lively response to madness, to death and to reality, all of which we contain and run from constantly. In a sense, that would be the trilogy in a nutshell if the nut itself were not so remarkably complex.

With the people from the bridge is the second book in the Poena Damni trilogy, and in many ways the most initially difficult of the three books. It’s staged as a drama. NCTV is play’s title. There are four characters: the Narrator (who turns a cassette-player on and off and holds a Bible); a Chorus of women; LG, a man, and a woman named NCTV, presumably the subject of the drama’s title, who sits in the burnt-out shell of a car and also appears on television. The stage is set under the arch of a bridge. The floor is dirt, there are people and dogs sitting around, and the lighting consists of five or six lights, white, blue and green. There’s a fire in an oil drum. One of the men, half-naked to the waist, makes a cross out of two pieces of wood and sticks it into the mud. Thus, Lyacos builds a makeshift setting of a church for the reader.

The Narrator begins the scene by tearing out pages from the Bible and papering a nearby wall. Then he begins reading from Mark 5 (New International Version), a passage of the Bible in which Jesus restores a demon-possessed man. The man, too strong to be kept in chains, is free, possessed and wildly alone:

And always, night
and day in the tombs
and in the mountains he was crying
and cutting himself with stones.
But when he saw Jesus afar
off he ran
and worshipped him,
and cried with a loud voice,
and said ”what have I to do with you, Jesus,
son of the most high God?
I adjure thee by God,
that thou torment me not.
For he said unto him; come out thou
unclean spirit from the
man, and he asked him;
what is thy name? and he answered
saying; my name is legion
for we are many.

And so Lyacos begins the dramatic monologue of LG, a man possessed by demons, and not yet healed, waiting. And what does he hear? Her. And as the books nears its conclusion and LG draws near to being healed:

Narrator with the Bible.

for he saith; in a time accepted
I have heard thee and in the day
of salvation have I succored thee;
behold now is the accepted time
behold now is the day of salvation

Chorus. Burning newspapers. Narrator goes and turns on
the TV.

The TV. And NCTV is on the TV. It’s devastating, really, how accurately Lyacos explains our self-distances. And how beautifully, when it happens, we might be healed:

They were not to be found
because God had translated them

Has anyone else written a long dramatic poem about what goes on between the time a man and his insane legion encounter Jesus and the time they reach Him? Here we appreciate Lyacos’ gifted imagination.

Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni (the loss of the damned) is perplexing, confusing, disturbing and gorgeous. It’s timeless work. There isn’t a screwdriver or latte or economic travesty in sight. It’s so refreshing to read work that dives down into the deep inner life of human consciousness, and at the same time in allegorical slant, maps the outward, subjective mess of ordinary life.

As for the last sentence in With the people from the bridge, we are brought into our current condition in which a man, for reasons we can only guess at, has tried his best to become a God. Which of course, makes him possessed by a demon. ~

Dimitris Lyacos | Translated by Shorsha Sullivan | Available from Shoestring Press

Reviewed by Elizabeth Myhr

Piotr Florczyk’s East & West

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As a widely published translator and writer of essays and poems, Piotr Florczyk, a native of Kraków, Poland, persistently mediates between languages and countries. At the heart of his first full-length collection of poems East & West lies the disparity between a home country that is at once elegized, revisited, and left behind and the new country, in which “questions get answered with questions” and guest bedrooms represent “the emptiness of people / departing each year.” The space that opens up in the midst of these seemingly dissimilar worlds is to our surprise filled with much more than nostalgia for a lost home but inhabited by a forceful and precise lyrical voice of conscience. By not romanticizing the notion of leaving and instead suggesting a view of the Western landscape through the lens of a newcomer, Florczyk only reminds us that when “hoping / to open that door and enter the world,” we might just “find it the same / as the last time we left it once and for all.”

Florczyk aptly introduces readers to the East with the poem “Nineteen Eighty-Nine,” in which a mother welcomes back her dissident and escaped daughter. The poem sets the mood for the rest of the collection by meditating on changes—
in the person who has left as well as in the home that was left behind.
Florczyk writes, “We couldn’t wait to finally sieve, sort, and disembody the impurities in our garb” and cleverly evokes change in the shape of a Maytag washing machine, a symbol of the wealthy West and perhaps of a squeaky-clean new life.

And yet, change is more complex and more profound in the individuals who adjust to new lives. The line “Still, you stayed up late, calculating how far a heart travels from home with each beat” speaks to the idea that homes are perhaps never entirely left behind and that parts are always taken along on the journey.

In the same vein, water—the ocean and rivers—becomes a fierce accomplice, a reminder and a metaphor for leaving and wandering in Florczyk’s collection. In
“Downriver,” the ones that stayed behind become “the rust / racing down the tongue of the slide, / the seesaw weighing the air,” “making baby sounds / with [their] lips / pressed against the fishbowl”; while in the poem “Pastoral,” the speaker, who in a past life “rubbed shoulders with buildings, blue / trams and pigeons,” reminisces on the idea of leaving as an act that resembles “catch-and-releasing” by a brook or a miniscule “breadcrumb,” only to be faced with “silence, something / like a furrow or a dagger” in this version of a pastoral.

In contrast to this, Florczyk invites us to share experiences of returning home that are resonant with feelings of nostalgia, uncertainty, and speechlessness. In the poem “Tetris,” the speaker climbs a staircase in a building he once used to inhabit, which skillfully becomes a metaphor for delving further into one’s memories.

“The air was thick with flies,
the smell of fresh tar sizzling on the roof, where,

years ago, we’d go to spit on people’s heads and tweak
the antennas to catch somebody else’s dreams.

Life was beautiful, I thought, leaving the first floor.
I found my misspelled nickname carved into the wall.”

In the long poem “Kinderszenen,”—the title calls to mind Robert Schumann’s piano piece of the same title—this memory is intimately revisited through a series of places, ranging from Southern California and Cape Cod to Europe, the Tropics, and the speaker’s new and old home. Here too, water plays a significant role, namely that of a border to cross:

“My ship, the one I’ll take home,
is a walnut shell—its figurehead
a boy gasping for breath.”

The metaphor of the boy struggling to stay afloat is continued in the last scene, fittingly titled “Homecoming”:

“someone you love throws their arms
around your sweaty neck,
so that you can let go of the splintering oars
and wear your body like air.”

To “wear your body like air” gracefully recounts the otherwise difficult to describe sensation of returning to a childhood home after many years. The walnut shell boat and the splintering oars suggest the fragility of such a journey, the complications that might arise when we return to our homes.

The desire to look out over the water, to gaze beyond physical borders, and to have the world at our fingertips is not only addressed through the personal narrative of a speaker who has left home to find a different life, but also by means of a perceptive criticism of a society that is constantly on the lookout for new discoveries and ways to conquer the world.

In the longer poem “From the Life of Postage Stamps,” Florczyk employs witty metaphors to hold up a mirror to our antics of taking on the world by planes, by climbing towers, or by using computers, just to name a few. A weightlifter suddenly “has a future in Sudan, / carrying pails of water, / should anything here go awry” and “ghosts hook up inside / the royal chamber” while “the guests are reminded / America wasn’t built in an hour.” Florczyk’s facetious and assertive tone when writing “The planets are next” and “If you agree the future looks bleak, / don’t click here” remind us that our actions have consequences.

Reading Florczyk’s riveting collection, we find ourselves on a journey from the East to the West and vice versa, all the while being accompanied by Florczyk’s hauntingly beautiful lines that speak of the psychology of borders and exploration, as well as the reconciliation of old homes and new homes. In addition to sharing intimate narratives of moving and settling down, East & West presents us with the dilemma of the 21st century, where the “story of the sun / climbing a fire escape in the rain” is no longer worth telling, but instead quick discoveries are to be made since “Hitting the road—the desert / or the sea—has never / been easier, and that’s a fact.” As a translator of several books of Polish poetry, Florczyk pays attention to the smallest details and has perfected bringing down linguistic borders while also preserving cultural peculiarities. In East & West he allows his readers to step over the crumbling remnants of these borders, to gaze out over the landscape to both sides, and to our astonishment realize that there are no places left to hide.

Reviewed by Monika Zobel
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Available from Lost Horse Press

Here We Go Again

 

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It’s been a while since we’ve published new reviews, but we’re at it again, starting with a coming review of Dmitris Lycos’ With the people from the bridge, the third book in the Poena Damni trilogy which has been translated by Shorsha Sullivan from the Greek into English.

We are an international site and are happy to read potential reviews in English from anywhere on the globe. We prefer to see reviews of literature in translation, but if you have a wonderful book in English you believe deserves recognition, by all means submit.

Please send inquiries to bethmyhr@gmail.com. 

Meaning’s Muscled Presence: A Review of Flesh Becomes Word, Poems by Brian Volck, Illustrations by John Volck

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Flesh-frcov.v2 copy

by Elizabeth Myhr

This book needs a review that will plunge into the religious and philosophical arguments presented in these poems. But this review is not going to do that, not directly anyway. What fascinates me about Brian Volck’s wonderful debut collection is its unusually intense intimacy. Many contemporary poets are intimate in a cerebral way, a kind of vacuous airiness holding it all together. But not Volck. “Minds are impediments / when unmoored to created things.” His refreshingly direct and assertive voice makes of reality a plain, touchable thing: “I’ve never held a soul / embraced without flesh.”

Volck is a doctor by profession. He knows a thing or two about flesh. And he knows a lot about human intimacy, the kind of intimacy that is currently taboo between doctor and patient but exists anyway; the kind of necessary human intimacy that gets lashed by fatigue into ineffective clinical sterility; the flavor of intimacy that only a man who understands bodies for a living might dare himself to stay with in his poetry. Volck’s work explores the territory where intimacy thrums between lovers, close friends, nearest kin. Intimacy that includes fights with your bitterest enemies, the making up, the death, all that loss and regret. Real intimacy.

The first and most obvious relationship is expounded in the book’s title, Flesh Becomes Word. Yes, in fact, if you are a writer you know with uncanny precision when you are writing something that gets anything close to the concrete. Language can’t drink a cold lemonade on a hot day. Writers don’t have a prayer in hell for getting anywhere near reality. It’s impossible. Silence can. But that has to be kept for another day, and then you’re not a writer anymore, are you? And that’s not the way our world communicates at this particular point in history. You want to tell someone what happened, you either have to talk or write about it. That’s a decision we made many centuries ago and pay for every day, Volck tells us. Because isn’t art, too, once removed?

          My lover fills all things with love’s perfume;

          but I, distracted, lose the scent in names;

          words without sense, vacant experience

Then comes another layer of complexity to the relationships this book explores—the poet and the artist are brothers. Younger brother to Brian, John Volck’’s illustrations, pencil on paper, are thoughtful studies of the human figure and face, and like the poems they walk with, also portray great intimacy. This is thought-provoking and tremendously humane work. A book to give your lover, your best friend, your worst enemy, or someone who needs to believe once more that love—in the flesh—can, and does, save the world.

*If you would like to contact John Volck about purchasing the original book illustrations, his email is volcklore@yahoo.com.

DON’T AVERT YOUR EYES: A review of Harold Jaffe’s Revolutionary Brain

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harold_jaffe-revolutionary_brain-21892by R. Sebastian Bennett

 

Harold Jaffe’s latest work, Revolutionary Brain, is a collection of “Essays and Quasi-Essays” which utilizes a variety of rhetorical strategies borrowed from fiction and nonfiction to dissect, analyze, and diagnose the societal and psychological dysfunctions which characterize the current human condition. In its broad, omnidirectional sweep, the book offers detailed findings as well as guidelines for solutions. This beautiful, expansive text is an acute cry for awareness of society’s flaws and, simultaneously, a curative voice of hope.

 

Jaffe foregrounds his theses with the directive that we, as human beings, share a tacit obligation in the midst of our crisis: “Don’t avert your eyes.” This injunction to maintain awareness as the first step in solving societal issues is a prescription to observe civilization and its detriments consciously, even if such observations entail an internalization process which is deeply disturbing.  For the artist, this process may lead to the birth of a particular kind of art, “Crisis Art,” which functions simultaneously as a creative outburst from the artist and–via the manifestation of that creativity–a further opportunity for other citizens to develop greater social awarenesses.

 

Crisis Art entails taking a stand, protesting, documenting, unmasking—literally and figuratively—societal elements which negatively impact our world. Jaffe carefully analyzes the aesthetic dimensions and components of Crisis Art, which is “directed rather than disinterested,” “closely related to art as process,” and “keenly aware of text and context.”  It entails “an energy and focus which more than compensate for its relative lack of refinement.” The crisis artist, like all of us, has the “obligation… to bear witness.” And that obligation functions in opposition to governmental and corporate quests to maintain citizens’ conformity and complacency, under the guise of maintaining order for public interest. Such a guise is mocked by Jaffe in “Iso,” where a narrative voice waxes pseudo-eloquent concerning social control: “Too many creatures dreaming, moving sideways, promote chaos.”

 

Much of Revolutionary Brain comprises, in a variety of rhetorical formats, a pondering and analysis of specific examples of societal dysfunction and their macroscopic implications. Ultimately, the text goes beyond these specified and artfully rendered depictions of maladies/mal-adaptations/mutations to answer the question: What are the veracious and most promising opportunities for transition and amelioration? In Revolutionary Brain, these opportunities carry an echo of the truest American hopes for democracy and humanity in their implicit appeal to a deism in the spirit of Walt Whitman and Thomas Jefferson, a would-be entreaty to “Nature’s God” for moral guidelines and fortitude. This is an appeal for a re-prioritization of natural beauty, justice, reason, equality, and the freedom to live a life unfettered by toxic, institutional pressures of any form.

 

However, while the book supports a broad, naturalized orientation to a spiritual dimension, again in congruence with Jefferson, it fervently rejects the current trends toward religious influence on government, manifest even in countries as supposedly secular as France and the United States. In “Hijab,” Jaffe addresses a French edict that “Islamic females of lycée age are required to remove their head and face coverings while in the lycée,” while nuns are allowed to wear head coverings—as they are “picturesque…[and] have an aesthetic dimension.” Jaffe unmasks this supposed “aesthetic” dimension as “the sacred prepuce of… white male leaders” which serves to support discrimination against religious traditions not directly aligned with that of the reigning governmental regime. Jaffe leaves the reader to ponder the implications of governmental/religious fusion in the United States; however, he is unequivocal about the extent of that synthesis:

                      

Is the US… a theocracy?

Without question

 

Notably, toxic social pressures detailed in Jaffe’s book are not merely commercial or sociological, but rather often scientific manifestations of the institutional goal of profiteering from human illness, weakness, or character flaws. Such dynamics are evident in Jaffe’s text “Freeze-Dry,” where parents ghoulishly attempt to cryogenically restrict the physical growth of their disabled child, a process which calls to mind an exponentiated, sci-fi version of foot-binding.  Along similar lines, in “Anal Acrobats,” the climate change phenomenon is posited as the net result of world leaders’ self-serving quests for power and votes, and their self-imposed blindness to the plight of decimated animals such as “a polar bear cub dying in the Antarctic because of ice melt.”

 

Jaffe’s scope is not focused merely on broad institutional or thematic issues. Revolutionary Brain also details individual psychological aberrations caused by particular societal conditions.  These aberrations often have a sexual component, and several of Jaffe’s texts address the hypothesis that the ever-increasing, main-streamed intake of porn, especially highly-deviational porn, is a response to/escape from an increasingly decimated civilization. The mechanism for this seems to arise from severe external disruptions in the normal bio-social sphere, causing a form of psychological imbalance akin to that seen in an animal which starts to behave in a physically deleterious or anti-social manner due to disruptions or abnormalities in its environment. As Jaffe puts it, “We need extremity beyond extremity to dodge the collective torment we are forbidden to acknowledge.” In some cases, the sexual aberrations and deviations are aided and abetted by a form of the technological fetishism which has become so prevalent today; in “Things to Do,” airline baggage handlers conform to their internalized self-dialogue/self-directives to “collect female hair from brushes, combs, intimate wear. Bag the hair in plastic, label it. Encode… fantasies of the hair-owners’ most intimate gestures on… smart phone.”

 

 

Jaffe points to a loss of moral compassing as characteristic of our era. This loss again functions microscopically and macroscopically, psychologically and politically. In “Pet Girl,” a woman is “led around on a leash by her boyfriend… [She] said she was the pet of her 25-year-old fiancé” and explains to a bus driver:

 

I don’t cook, I don’t clean, I don’t do anything or go anywhere without my master.  To you it’s strange, but it’s my culture and my choice.  It isn’t hurting anyone.

 

Later, the “British bus company” must apologize to the girl for calling her a “freak.”

 

Intriguingly, Jaffe simultaneously posits the “Pet Girl” event as evidence of deviant social trends resulting from aberrant social pressures AND culturally-induced unwillingness to accept alternative lifestyles due to a collectively endorsed closed-mindedness. As such, humans are caught in a quintessential catch-22: naturalistic behaviors have mutated in an unbalanced manner, and militant, conformist institutional pressures mandate criticism—indeed ostracism—of those mutations. This is a prime mechanism for collective unrest, a state gladly induced by commercial and political forces, as it can be harnessed for profit-driven and agenda-driven outcomes.

 

Further depicting the loss of moral compassing, Jaffe points to  the acronym-obsessed arenas of international relations and military strategy.  Again, Revolutionary Brain calls for a humanistic force to balance the be-numbed, crocodilian orientation of ranking administrators, junta-supporters, and analysts who fail to manifest any semblance of sympathy for arbitrarily tortured individuals, and view them as acceptable collateral damage for any undertaking which supports current political strategy. In “Truth Force,” confronted by the actuality of torture, the presiding administrator refuses to acknowledge the event or its implications, and repeatedly states “I’ve read the report,” in a self-imposed, perpetual state of cognitive dissonance regarding the torture itself and its moral justification.

 

An appeal for sympathetic and empathetic responses to human suffering is especially manifest in Jaffe’s text “Death in Texas,” which calls into question the issue of the death penalty, far beyond its obvious susceptibility to criticisms concerning irreversibility of outcome for mistakenly convicted individuals. Jaffe’s text focuses, again, on the humanity of death-row inmates, especially as manifest in their last statements, just prior to their executions. These messages are haunting, both in their finality and, oddly, in their innocence—wherein that innocence relates not to culpability, but to a purity of expression and mentation, a Zen-like state, perhaps achievable only when there is nothing left to lose and all external judgments of one’s expressions are irrelevant. The prose rhythms in “Death in Texas” are especially compelling, as if synchronized with the unforgiving relentlessness of passing time itself. The scope of the “offenders’” final statements chronicles the dimensions of human experience itself.   

 

Some speak of family, nature, and emotional state. Foregrounding spirituality, Marcus Cotton, in the final moment, speaks out to his mother:

                      

Take care yousefs

Tell my kids I love ‘em

God is real.  He is fixin to find out some deep things…

 

Virgil Ravenfeather calls to the forces of nature, with an ironic overlay:

                   

Only the sky and the green grass goes on forever and today is a good day to die…

I can give you just one thing.

I’m a give a life for a life.

I am not saying this to be facetious.

I hope yawl find comfort in my execution…

 

Johnny Saginaw’s last statement focuses on a quest for happiness:

                   

Be happy.

Are you happy?

Are you all happy?

 

Some offenders weigh the social solution of the death penalty against the solution of mercy.  Napoleon Beazley addresses various alternatives:                 

                      

Tonight we tell the world that there are no second chances in the eyes of justice.

Tonight we tell our children that in some instances killing is righteous…

The problem is the system is telling them there is no rehabilitation.

Only unforgiving punishment.

 

Adolf Wölfli focuses on the primacy of mercy:

                      

If among you there is anyone without sin, let him come to me, and I will implore him for compassion and mercy.

 

The positioning of Wölfli in this context is complex and variegated.  The historical Wölfli, himself sexually abused as a child, was imprisoned in a mental hospital following his luring and molestation of young girls on several occasions (www.aldolfwoelfli.ch/index).  Over the course of his confinement, his artistic genius emerged, as he produced a large number of intricate and striking illustrations. His name fictively included in the body of offenders executed in Texas functions as an implication that: 1) Even reprehensible acts may be beyond an individual’s control due to the overwhelming impact of previous life experiences; and 2) The capital punishment of any individual may constitute the death of a genius who was destined to make great contributions to society (this train of argumentation also functions in curious and sardonic counterpoint to similar arguments made by pro-life advocates—many of whom are also in favor of the death penalty…).

 

In “Death in Texas,” other offenders invoke the afterlife, implicitly or explicitly.  Karla Faye Tucker addresses this via her Christianity:

                   

I am going to be face to face with Jesus now.

I will see all yawl when you get up there.

I will be dressed in wat.

 

Of course, this statement involves a Southern dialect; however, the ambiguous rendering of the word “wat” functions simultaneously as a color reference and as an interrogative “What”–with the implication that Karla, like many of us, is still rather uncertain of what the afterlife will entail, and her precise role/deportment within it. This uncertainty seems characteristics of Karla Faye Tucker’s own quixotic physical and mental state; the historical Karla Faye Tucker reportedly experienced intense orgasms as she struck her victim with a pick-axe. (www.clarkprosecuter.org).

 

Jimmy Blackmon’s final statement is silence, accompanied by an institutional parenthetical commentary: “This offender declined to make a final statement.” By default, this prelude to death emphasizes it as the penultimate, alienated end; without hope of transcendence in any form.

 

Many of the texts in Revolutionary Brain address damage to our environment from sources such as climate change and toxic pollutants.  In “Sacrifice,” Jaffe summarizes the degree of damage which humans have inflicted on the planet: “Man and his institutions will not cease to filthy o’er the earth. Profiting all the while.” In “Iso,” he addresses a particularized effect of chemical interference on the animal world: “Tens of thousands of frogs born maimed. They point to the futureless future.” The net effect of this damage is akin to a Frankensteinian-level alteration of our planet. Jaffe emphasizes this comparison in his text “Bride of Frankenstein (Directed by James Whale, 1935)” in which ultimately, Frankenstein realizes the degree of his own aberration and kills both himself and would-be bride, after she has rejected him. Jaffe ends this text with a coda: “Monsters perish, ultimately. Monstrous acts fester.”

 

 

Fully contemplating the depths and dimensions of social dysfunction detailed in Revolutionary Brain certainly leads to a deep sense of alienation, isolation, and sadness; however, while these emotions may be useful for enhancing awareness, the book ultimately points beyond such responses to curative mechanisms.

In this regard, the beauty, power, and mythology of animals and the animalian kingdom are proffered as possible keys to enlightenment. Jaffe’s text “Animals” repositions and redistributes animal and human values, both biological and ethical: “Elephants’ brains are denser than humans’. The temporal lobes associated with memory are more complexly developed than in humans…” With regard to their moral purity, Jaffe writes: “Animals… do not wage war, exile or murder the innocent form money.  They do not extort surplus labor for surplus value.

 

While Revolutionary Brain disdains a governmental/religious union as described, importantly, it by no means rejects a religious orientation; indeed, such an orientation is posited as perhaps the most powerful promise for amelioration of our world. As proclaimed in Jaffe’s text “Sacrifice,” “the diseased earth can be cleansed solely by God’s grace.” Moreover, on an individual level, an unadulterated connection with a pure form of religion, devoid of sectarian discrimination and prescriptive worship, is championed, as seen in the text “Salvation Mountain,” with its simple yet powerful message “God is Love.”

Harold Jaffe’s book Revolutionary Brain is a brilliant and heartfelt cry for the restoration of humanity, a cry which is accompanied by a message of spiritual guidance from “Nature’s God.” While the book is scrupulous and thoroughgoing in its criticism of societal flaws, it is not subversive or nihilistic.  Rather its plea for new awareness and social amelioration is urgent and poignant, as seen clearly in this passage from “Weep”:

 

Weeping animals, plants and stones…traverse the benighted globe…

Climate change acknowledged and addressed.

Dehumanizing post-capitalism hacked, disempowered.

The invisible colored poor made visible.

The twisted made sound.

Enslaving technology disappeared.

                      

How long will that take?

On Harold Jaffe’s OD

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jaffeby Joseph D. Haske

Harold Jaffe refers to much of his recent work as “docufiction.” Texts, such as his latest OD, convey elements of multiple genres and mediums, including history, journalism, fiction and poetry. The very concept of docufiction, although contradictory in its essence, allows Jaffe to demonstrate to the reader how an apparent sense of authenticity and “truth” might be achieved by blurring these genre lines and by manipulating the perceived notion of historical accuracy. In this sense OD calls to mind Roland Barthes’ treatment of popular myth in his 1957 text Mythologies:

 

What I mean is that I cannot countenance the traditional belief which postulates a natural dichotomy between the objectivity of the scientist and the subjectivity of the writer, as if the former were endowed with a ‘freedom’ and the latter with a ‘vocation’ equally suitable for spiriting away or sublimating the actual limitations of their situation. What I claim is to live to the full the contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth. (12)

 

Taking Barthes’ perspective on the condition of truth to another level, Jaffe’s docufiction operates both inside and outside of the conventionally accepted boundaries of history, genre and fact, calling into question the very notion of veracity while ultimately legitimizing an alternative concept of history.

 

Jaffe’s docufictional style, in its subversion of the traditional notions of genre, reflects this defiance of expectation by utilizing a form that is closer in spirit to a sort of free verse poetry than it is to a standard form of fiction. In fact, Jaffe’s style, structure and literary disposition are evocative of another forward-thinking American non-conformist, Walt Whitman. As with Whitman’s poetry, Jaffe’s work blurs genre boundaries and typically utilizes familiar mainstream vernacular, while still exploring more complex ideas and allusions. Docufiction proves gratifying on several basic levels, easily accessible to the average person, but one needs to dig deeper to encounter the true complexity and literary profundity of Jaffe’s work.  Texts like OD have much to offer both the academic and the lay reader.  Layers upon layers of figurative and philosophical depth are embedded into a minimalist, poetic, narrative aesthetic.

       

The tales in OD feature cultural icons bound to each other by their addictions and drug-related deaths.  Each subject acts as sort of benchmark figure to represent a moment in relatively recent history. Jaffe presents a vast assortment of characters and utilizes diverse strategies and perspectives to create the docufictional narratives for each well-known subject. Again, as Mythologies explores the notion of familiar societal tropes, Jaffe employs figures who are public icons, their lore, for the most part, familiar to the general population. Then, he adds his own unique spin to the stories. Barthes claims that:  

 

“Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance” (110).

 

Perhaps Jaffe’s overdose mythology emerges from iconic figures at significant moments of our time precisely because the material of their lives has already been worked and reworked into a sort of collective mythology. Jaffe’s fabrications, of course, are not familiar, and the astute reader will marvel at his manipulation of “truth.”

          

OD  begins with “Bela Lugosi,” a treatment of the actor most famous for playing Dracula. The beginning of the text reads as if it were taken from a more traditional biography, stating many commonly putative facts about Lugosi. Then, there is a shift toward embellishment and historical liberties when the narrator states, “The preceding amounts to a commonly accepted summary of Bela Lugosi’s life and times. Another version, much more evocative, has to do with Lon Chaney” (14). The text then launches into a fantastical tale that involves Lon Chaney changing places with Bela Lugosi at the time of Chaney’s supposed death. In a sense, this sort of move is evocative of current internet trends such as Wikipedia, the populist encyclopedia, where essentially anyone can change and add information and almost anyone can dispute the “facts” listed on the site. With texts like “Bella Lugosi,” Jaffe calls into question the accepted notions of knowledge and makes light of the many ways in which authoritative sources are not as conclusive as they seem. The reader is prompted to simultaneously suspend disbelief and question authority.  One might begin to wonder, when reading OD, if the fabricated elements of these narratives might be true or if they are any less credible than the accepted biographical versions.  Jaffe reminds the reader that there is no absolute truth and we should apply a critical eye to all authorities and sources of information.

          

In “Poe,” Jaffe employs a first-person account, reminiscent of Poe’s own style, set in contemporary times. This fictionalized version of Edgar Allen Poe operates as a hybrid character, bringing in elements of the historical poet as well as characteristics of the narrator and, as stated at the end of the text, borrowing a brief portion of a scene from Walter Benjamin. The text employs temporal juxtaposition and a collective voice to show kinship between the subject and narrator while exhibiting the mythology of the tortured writer and misunderstood genius. Through the narrator, we experience Poe’s anguish made universal. The textual reincarnation of Poe, when facing a conflict with a physically intimidating functionary, reminds the reader that great talent is perpetually hindered by the incompetence that surrounds it. When the narrator sees “that the name on the tag pinned to [the aforementioned functionary’s] chest was Griswold,” an obvious allusion to Poe’s most notorious literary detractor, one realizes that all great writers continually face the harassment of inept peers as well as inner demons (54).

          

After working through various iconic singers, artists and writers, Jaffe examines cult mythology via the Jamestown incident before concluding the collection with a narrative on Sigmund Freud and the younger Lucian Freud which explores “the dialectic that vibrates:/Eros-Thanatos for Lucian Freud./Thanatos-Eros for Sigmund Freud (121).

The cohesive thread binding this diverse collection is the examination of extraordinary people’s motivation to live/die and the correlation of these struggles with acts of creation, sex, talent and drugs. In the end, OD does propose answers regarding the subjects’ respective drug-related deaths, but ultimately leaves the reader with still more questions, as good literature should. Jaffe challenges accepted notions about the mythology of drug lore while simultaneously propagating said notions. Again, in Mythologies, Barthes says that,“[a]ncient or not, mythology can only have an historical foundation, for myth is the type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things.” Jaffe, truly one of the great contemporary masters of the minimalist aesthetic, both proves and disproves this sentiment with OD.

A Review of Ece Temelkuran’s Book of the Edge

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eceby Andrew Scoggins

Ece Temelkuran is described first and foremost as a journalist and political commentator on her website. Embroiled at an early age in the midst of a multitude of violent coups and uprisings, Temelkuran has spent most of her life trying to fight corruption and shedding light upon the daily struggles of the common people. She has travelled all over the world. It is within this wide scope of experience that she crafts her poetry collection, Book of the Edge.

The book plays out like a long interconnected narrative that utilizes poetic conventions to tell its tale. Temelkuran’s journalistic training is strongly evident as her images are very concise. There are even instances in which she forgoes verse entirely in favor of prose paragraphs, but that may be the strongest asset to the work as a whole. The story is incredibly compelling.

Because the allegories and metaphors are well-grounded, readers can focus less on exploring esoteric themes and instead lose themselves in this journey of self-discovery. The book contains six sections (divided by the motivations for embarkation, the journey itself, and the return home). The first section, titled “Necessary Things for Any Journey,” acts as the speaker’s introduction: a hand outstretched to the reader. The speaker describes feelings of entrapment: “the crowd suppressed the warm, familiar voices inside of me” and “you would be satisfied / with a tiny empire of playpens and narrow rooms. / You would be at ease. / But you are not at ease”. The reader is drawn into a universal feeling of restlessness. It only subsides when the speaker experiences the unvarnished life of the natural world in the next two sections.

Here, different species of animals are used as conceits which bring to mind the world the speaker has left behind. A butterfly points out the temporality of wealth, a bull is a meditation on responsibility of power, and albatrosses are incredibly touching examples of love and commitment in an era of absolute freedom. Each of the creatures that the speaker finds reflects some quintessential aspect of the the human condition and serves as a liberating counterpoint to the section that follows.

This section, involving the city, is profoundly disturbing as it critiques the vampirism of modern society in a series of four parts called “Plays.” City-dwellers are described as jaguars in “Second Play”, as they lurk through the city streets and hunt outsiders who have not fully conformed to their hollow lifestyle. “First Play” depicts people in the process of conforming, explaining how city-goers keep their eyes lowered to the ground so as to not display their uniqueness. Finally, the speaker leaves the corrupt city and metamorphizes into a sow bug to ruminate on her entire journey, curling herself into a ball. The outside world admires her journey but cannot understand it until the narrator passes along the information in “House of the Edge” on the “…snow white paper”.

Temelkuran seems to describe the experience of crafting one’s own story in the final few poems. This creates a sense of empathy with the reader and so it is fitting that the story begins and ends with two versions of the poem “Offering”. The first builds a sense of connection between the reader and narrator: “O reader! You? You are like this, too. / You may not know it yet: You are just like me.” At the end of the journey the narrator reverses that sentiment: “O reader! Me? I am like this, too. / I may not know it yet: / I am just like you.” Temelkuran’s first “Offering” has the narrator describe herself by saying “I am water. I am afraid of the stones I will strike as I flow.” In the second “Offering” the narrator states: “You are water. You are afraid of — and for — the stones you will strike as you flow.” The narrator acknowledges that the fear she once felt can be overcome. It is a rousing and inspiring send-off because the reader now knows that such a feat is possible. This sense of empowerment is what makes Book of the Edge such a captivating read.

Translator Deniz Perin perfectly captures the essence of Temelkuran’s journalistic training. The images are concise and the language straightforward. Perin states in the introduction that she had problems translating the Turkish concept of the universal pronoun for men, women, and objects, and Temelkuran wanted the narrator to be as genderless as possible. Luckily, the narrator is only referred to in the third person once, and Perin gives her a feminine pronoun as a “universal she,” which works quite well for the book as a whole.

A Note on Suzanne Cleary Langley’s Beauty Mark

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2012-12TheBeautyMarkby Ilya Kaminsky

 

“The imperfect is our paradise,” Wallace Stevens reminds us, but how lucky we are to have in these poems of Suzanne Cleary-Langley another reminder—that “we seldom forget our dead when we laugh,” and that “dancing the polka is like walking / on a ship’s deck / during a storm…each time the ship / tilts, you take two hop-like /steps.”

 

Beauty bedevils, she tells us, but the beauty-mark bedevils beauty. And this is exactly what her lyric voice is doing in this book of poems that bewitch and stun, knowing that in the end, although we are not the ones who said “our little life is rounded with a sleep,” we too, have taken “the very earth / into our mouth…mortal, mortal, mortal.”

A Note on In the Absence of Clocks by Jacobo Shores-Arguello

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clocksby Ilya Kaminsky

                 

Beginning with “the ox-hauled moon” this book opens to pages where thin boys and bakers sit on their stoops, pouring “flour from one hand to the other” and the tower’s clockwork is arrested, and the village “is late for bread.” Where are we? In what geography? We are in a peninsula that looks like “cold wolf hangs from the teat of upper atmosphere” and those who rejoice here, make toasts “To childhood. To death.” And, what year is it? “A year is a modest thing, naked to its ankles.” Again, where are we? In Paradise:

 

How do you know that Adam and Eve were communists,

he asks. His laughter foams like the sea, cannot

hide from itself. Because they had no clothes to wear,

no sausage to eat, and still they thought it was paradise.

 

This is the Ukraine of Arguello’s imagination, a place where “a thin boy is a spy, disguised by a magnolia.” When you open this book, “do not ask what the crows have done” because “the beer still tastes like beer. / The girls who serve it / still trust their hips.” This is the sort of a book that investigates deeper into the lives of others, to find poetry there, to find meaning, to find strangeness that is all our own. So, what do we find here? I found how “betrayed by quiet, we do not pray to darkness. We demand.”

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