Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Jessica D. Thompson, Bullets and Blank Bibles, (Liquid Paper Press, 2013), 32 pages, poetry, $6.00 U.S.
Roberta Schultz, Outposts on the Border of Longing, (Finishing Line Press, 2014), 32 pages, poetry, $12.00 U.S.
Marianne Worthington, Larger Bodies than Mine, (Finishing Line Press, 2006), 30 pages, poetry, $12.00 U.S.
Appalachian poetry, like its culture, is changing fast. If you think you know what to expect from it, think again. The three books I am reviewing here are on the more traditional end of contemporary Appalachian poetry, but this is not the poetry that came from the region 100 years ago. And it is not the poetry to come in the very near future. Still, one over-riding principle remains for Appalachian poets - no matter how they choose to practice their art: "For something taken, something/must be given." ("Something Taken", Bullets and Blank Bibles, Jessica D. Thompson).
When one's culture is in a rapid state of change, the urgent need is to reflect that instability while paying proper respect to what is passing. For some poets this means taking something - experimenting with radical new modes of expression in an effort to capture the mood of change and possibly form a language for what must inevitably follow. For other poets it means giving something - attempting to preserve some of what is passing. The three poets in this review are largely seeking to preserve the heritage and culture that is almost faded entirely into memory, that cozy, warm past that outsiders once derided and now seek out as tourists.
Marianne Worthington is probably the most notable of the three for this patient homage. Her tipping of the hat in Larger Bodies than Mine consists of family portraits painted deftly from memory in careful metered lines. There is very little alliterative play here, but the preciousness of it renders it surprising and rich where it does occur. Most of her collection focuses on various grandmothers. Heaneyesque in many ways, her verse teeters on the thin line of over-sentimentality without slipping over. This is nostalgia on the tongue and in the mind. While the forms rely heavily on meter, she does not make the mistake of rhyming into sing-song.
Jessica D. Thompson writes of the rural setting and a little of family, but Bullets and Blank Bibles is not as polished. It retains a bluntness Worthington does not allow for, an anger biting subtly below the surface. One might call it simply Discontent. Take this line from the best poem in the volume ("Turquoise") as an example: "We measure our life by what we love/but settle for what we are given". That's Appalachian culture summed up in one neat little aphorism (Thompson is good at that). Compromise is everything in a region that both nurtures and murders, and that is something she knows well. As with Worthington, her verse depends much on meter, but she stretches it a bit. It's a little more fluid, slightly unhinged. Alliteration gets more time on the page. But the overall pace is kept appropriately slow, measured, and deliberate, like the passing of the seasons.
Enter Roberta Schultz' Outposts on the Border of Longing. Though I don't think she means to, she serves as a kind of mediator between the more traditional poets of Appalachia and the radical, avant garde. She too pulls mostly from memory for her subject matter (and not all of it is PC), but her style makes the end result feel less lyrical and more confessional. She deviates from variations on blank verse more than the previous two and tries out forms less often used by the majority of poets on her side of the spectrum (striking example: "War: A Sestina"). Schultz does, unfortunately, indulge in a nauseating cuteness when she writes of her pet cat ("Be Careful What You Wish For"). For one horrifying moment, I thought I was judging an elementary school poetry contest! But then she recovers nicely with this anecdote as an explanation of her poetic philosophy:
"Night vision begins
at twenty minutes -
ten minutes after most
of us reach for a switch,
flushing our faith with fear,
leaving us night blind."
The encouragement here is explicit. Poetry is about intuition and insight, not the gathering of data or facts. This is even more true when the old modes of expression are rendered largely irrelevant by seismic cultural shifts. So we must allow ourselves to develop "night vision" and write from that.
While it is true that narrative, form, and meter remain strong components for these three poets, their work nevertheless contains powerful realisations that the old Appalachian ways are gone. Wistful and mournful, these poets clearly feel a keen sense of loss and separation from that which made them who they are. In doing so, they give something back to the culture that it is now missing from it. This serves as a needed balance to those contemporary Appalachian poets who take something by forging ahead to see what they can make of what comes next in the blinding light of the new unknown.
(For full disclosure: this is an unpaid review. No good or services were received.)
Jimmy Olsen, Things in Ditches, (North Star Press, 2000), 312 pages, mystery fiction, $14.95 U.S.
Jimmy Olsen is a thought-provoking writer. His love of the sea and of scuba diving shine through in his work like flashlights on a dark, quiet night. But Things in Ditches comes from an opposite place. It draws from his background in the mid-west by being set in frigid Minnesota in the midst of a blizzard. That's right, folks, read this one with something warm to drink; you'll be cold the entire time.
Things in Ditches turns the mystery novel on its head. How? How about knowing who the murderer is from the opening sentence. (Or do you?) This book is less about solving a twisted puzzle and more about delving into the darker aspects of human nature. It explores such questions as: why are men more likely to commit murder than women? What drives women who seem to have no moral compass? How exactly do the dynamics of small towns play out in such scenarios? Why do some women tend to forgive and forgive past all common sense? What causes certain crimes to become sensationalised in the media and popular culture? Can justice be served when it does? How are innocents hurt - or (perversely) benefited - by that? How do people live with those things?
It took me quite a while to get into it. There are a lot of characters, connected by a large and complicated web, introduced in the first half. Often, I found myself flipping back a few chapters to remind myself who a person was. There are some grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. Also, like a bad soap opera with an inexperienced editing crew, there are tiny continuity glitches in a handful of scenes. But if you can stick it out, the action gets rolling in the second half and it becomes difficult to put down.
I can't say whether you'll be satisfied with the answers that Olsen ultimately offers to all the social studies questions this book asks, but I can say you just might be disturbed by his conclusions. And maybe that's the point. Maybe we're not meant to be comfortable with the honest glare of human nature we're left with. You decide.
(For full disclosure: I received a review copy from the author for this review.)