Review: Alibi for Two

Alibi for Two
Alibi for Two by Augustus Merrill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This chapbook, which I received through Goodreads’ First Reads, narrates an impressionistic picture of land, life and relationships in the far Northern Midwest. Each poem is individual, but in combination the themes recur and re-analyze.

In the previous week, I had also read and reviewed other poetry collections by Rae Armantrout, Frank Bidart, and Anne Boyer. I wanted to make sure that I was in a poetry frame of mind when I read the collection, which I read twice due to its particular invented form. Each poem in the collection [many of which had been previously published individually over the past 35 years] is written in the same form: a short prose-poetry “paragraph” of 4-5 sentences is followed by verse comprised of single, separated lines. There is no sense of stanza to any poems. The prose-poetry lines and the verse lines were usually, but not always on the same topic and often had differing POVs. The shared form between the poems bind the collection though the narration does not arc over the course of the collection.

There are some undoubtedly beautiful moments here. In the opening poem, “I Sit With You,” the verse section opens with the two lines, “No wind over the eighty-eight acre face of Lake Nothing,//No moon in the leaf stained water.” The repetition of the form iterates the stagnancy of the scene. The final three lines of the poem pull us back into this moment, “I sit with you, my silent wife,//Until the wind stirs and the ice forms//Between us and the lake.” The slow thrum of the spaced single lines works well here. I do not think it works equally well for every poem in the collection. But that is the form for every poem in the collection. The form binds the poem, perhaps inhibiting it.

The second poem in the collection, “The Dock,” used the opening prose-poem section to great effect. I was surprised and excited by the opening lines: “The dock was built with trepidation. Not by someone joyfully launching out from land, but by someone afraid of the water, reluctant and trembling on the shore.” The image and its color and emotion are right there pulling me in. This made me excited for the collection. Unfortunately, this was the exception to the pattern. Other first lines of the opening prose sections were:

“It was not a good place to quarrel.”
“It wasn’t much of a dowry, but what she brought . . .”
“It was hard work building the little steam bath.”
“It was good to be out of the hospital.”
“It was not a good idea to leave.”
“It was a small wilderness, but a wilderness nonetheless.”
“He was not a seeker.”
“He had stopped doing the things he loved.”

Verse thrives in an economy of words. Possibly, a little latitude should exist for prose-poem passages. But, each of these 8 poems opens with a pronoun without an antecedent and remains largely vague through the first sentence. As I progressed through the collection, the form worked less well and eventually felt constraining if not jarring.

So, I re-read the entire collection. On the second read, I read every prose-poem section in a row to look for an collection-wide arc to explain the use of the form. Then I re-read all of the verse sections to do the same. Ultimately, I was disappointed by what I did not find.
 
 
 
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Review: The Romance of Happy Workers

The Romance of Happy Workers
The Romance of Happy Workers by Anne Boyer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is my third entry in my series of poetry collection reviews having finished Watching the Spring Festival: Poems by Frank Bidart yesterday. Like the others, I had read this previously a few years back.

Two months back I found myself killing time in the Munich airport. An elderly lady sat next to me and saw that I was working on a crossword puzzle out of a British newspaper. In moderately accented English, she started to tell me about being robbed of her papers, and police cameras everywhere, and how she stays at the airport because she is undercover against the governments of Germany and Britain and America because she is exposing their secret agendas. She was very pleasant (albeit schizophrenic), and she just would not go away. Reading this poetry collection is a similar experience. The sounds are fun in an ee cummings manner (at times), but the message is lost in the crazy. The collection pretends that it wants to make a statement or comparison to communism (at least in the opening long poem of the same title as the collection), but ends up just cramming in as many Russian icons as possible: “The Deus ex Machina Puppet Troupe/flew into Leningrad half past noon.//I waited among the Tatars bored/as moons. Woody showed, stinking//of pomegranate, gulag-eating grin./I let him make a bed in my ear.//His rent cost nothing, two dummy rubles/and a half-spent roll of gossamer.//I babushkaed around his breath/100 mornings as if icons were Workers,//poems blocks of ice. My comrades say . . .”

There is a sense of fun here, however. Or possibly a sound of fun, as in her ode to pigs, “Cloven by Cloven:” “I have dined on the deviled, the pickled, the rude:/bacon, baloney, barbecue, maws,//neckbones, ears, feet, knees./I sing the canned and the candied. . . .” Unfortunately, sounding fun and being fun can be two different things in my experience.
 
 
 
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Review: Watching the Spring Festival: Poems

Watching the Spring Festival: Poems
Watching the Spring Festival: Poems by Frank Bidart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my second time reading this collection, the first being 5 years back in grad school. Last week I re-read and wrote a review for Up to Speed by Rae Armantrout. The second half of this collection salvaged my opinion and enjoyment of this collection ultimately adding the third star to this review. Clearly, not every poem is going to connect with every reader and this was my experience with this collection until I got to the longest included poem, “Ulanova at Forty-Six at Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle.” I found this poem exquisite. The opening section recreates the dance: “Many ways to dance Giselle, but tonight as you/watch you think that she is what art is, creature//who remembers//her every gesture and senses its relation to the time/just a moment before when she did something//close to it//but then everything was different so what she feels/now is the pathos of the difference. Her body//hopping forward//remembers the pathos of the difference. Each/hop is small, but before each landing she has//stepped through//many ghosts.” The poem expertly weaves in prose-poem sections that contemplate the desire to write this very poem, muse on the typical tragedies, and even quote contemporary reviews of the performance, all while reconstructing the dance.

A few other moments stand out when it feels like the poet is speaking from personal experience. [from “Little O“] “When I was young, I tried not to/generalize; I had seen little. At sixty-six,//you have done whatever you do//many times before.” The most vivid, just-shy-of-graphic moment comes in the final poem, “Collector:” “When your stepfather/went broke, you watched as your mother’s//money allowed survival–//It is not release. You watched her pay him/back by multitudinous//daily humiliations. In the back seat of//the car you were terrified as Medea/invented new ways to tell//Jason what he had done to her.”

Finally, I cannot end this without making mention of the single form-poem in the collection [a sestina without the traditional final tercet], “If See No End In Is.” I loved it. Doing a form-poem just to do a form-poem is usually a class exercise these days. However, this poem works beautifully from the opening stanza: “What none knows is when, not if./Now that your life nears its end/when you turn back what you see/is ruin. You think, it is a prison. No,/it is a vast resonating chamber in/which each thing you say or do is//new, but the same. [. . .]” The fourth stanza stands as a supplication: “Familiar spirit, within whose care I grew, within/whose disappointment I twist, may we at last see/by what necessity the double-bind is in the end/the figure for human life, why what we love is/precluded always by something else we love, as if/each no we speak is yes, each yes no.” Who needs a finalizing tercet with the following sixth and final sestet? “Something in you believes that it is not the end./When you wake, sixth grade will start. The finite you know/you fear is infinite: even at eleven, what you love is/what you should not love, which endless bullies in-/tuit unerringly. The future will be different: you cannot see/the end. What none knows is when, not if.”

I regret that more of the collection eluded me, but what spoke to me, moved me.
 
 
 
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Review: Up to Speed

Up to Speed
Up to Speed by Rae Armantrout
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the second time I’ve read this collection, the first being in grad school five years back. It contains some moments of beauty scattered among the poems. From “The Fit:” “In a coming-of-age story/each dream/produces me://an ignorance/on the point of revelation.” Similarly in “Write Home,” she pens “In order to write/you must fall in love//with your own thought/every time.” I enjoy these rare moments and wish entire poems communicated as well to me. Like in the cited examples, her words about words and writing ring very true and clear. “‘When size really counts,’/the billboard says//showing the product/tiny,//in one corner,//so we need to search for it./Come find me.//I stand/behind these words.” [from “Almost”].

Overall I found the poems too vague. Pages would go by without an image that spoke to me. An early poem, “Afterlife,” colored my reading: “He always said my poems were lonely, as if each thing (word, person) stood still, waiting for meaning.” I wish I hadn’t found this an accurate description of the entire collection for me.

I must call out two geek moments for me that I loved: [From “Next Generations”] “But, on ‘Star Trek,’ we aren’t the Borg,/the aggressive conglomerate,/each member part humanoid, part/machine, bent on assimilating/foreign cultures. In fact,/we destroy their ship,/night after night,/in preparation for sleep.” [and from the prose-poem “As One”] “After months apart, my friend invites me to meet her at a tourist spot in the town where we both used to live. We sit at a table in the sun, behind a mariachi band, and speak rapidly, as if trying to ‘catch up.’ She says that what scientists are learning about time suggests it may be possible to see into the future. I agree by mangling quotes from Godel and Hawking. ‘If the entire universe is spinning–and why not?–time may be circular.’ We interrupt each other frequently, as if excited, though, in fact, we have had this conversation several times before.”

 
 
 
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Review: Night Owls

Night Owls
Night Owls by Lauren M. Roy
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this book on the heels of finishing Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy, #1) by Pierce Brown. Going from a fully developed sci-fi world to a YA-voiced urban fantasy that does not spend time defining its world tinted my read. As an adult, I do not particularly enjoy the YA-voice. I am also not familiar with the canon of vampire urban fantasy that this book relies on. I have no interest in reading or watching Twilight (Twilight, #1) by Stephenie Meyer, so maybe this was a bad pick for me.

However, I read the entire thing as I did want to know where it was going. Most plot points can be guessed a chapter or two before they happen; the same can be said of the significance of most of the characters. I did not enjoy that aspect.

It also would have been nice to have terms defined: Renfield, Stregoi [sic], Jackals [as compared to werewolves]. Each term was used as a given, but based on an unknown canon beyond the original Bram Stoker and mythos. Even this book’s “rules” for vampires and succubi could stand to be defined since there are so many variants out there. [Especially true of the turning rite.]

There is a middle-ground that this book does not reach for in between informing the reader and getting too tell-y.

The best moment is witnessing the inside of a Jackal’s den. The character POV truly explored at this moment and shared the revelations with the reader. The entire book could have used more of that eye and voice.
 
 
 
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Review: Red Rising

Red Rising
Red Rising by Pierce Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book immediately after finishing The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1) by Patrick Rothfuss. Admittedly, that’s a tough act to follow. As a reader, I jump genres often so while I have read some sci-fi, I would not consider myself a sci-fi reader. That said, I enjoyed where this book took me and will definitely be looking for the next in the series to come out.

Early sections of the book had me thinking of The City of Ember (Book of Ember, #1) by Jeanne DuPrau, the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling [mostly due to the author’s notes] and The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The latter deserves comparison, though I was glad that Red Rising quickly established how it was different than a fantasy. The story felt organic and more fully filled out its world than the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series which was fully satisfying.

I was also appreciative of the story not being YA-voiced despite the youth of the protagonist.

Predictable plot and predictable characters irk me. I do not want to be continuously more in the know than the characters or else their discovery process can become tedious. This is not a problem here in the least. I discovered as the main character discovered. I was not able to guess at the deeper meaning and role of certain characters before they embraced or revealed that role. I truly have no idea where the second book will take me, and I love that fact.
 
 
 
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