Review: Peter Orlovsky, A Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat Writer by Peter Orlovsky edited by Bill Morgan

Peter Orlovsky, a Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat WriterPeter Orlovsky, a Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat Writer by Peter Orlovsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection of poems, letters and journals entries with a few random photos thrown in was not what I expected it to be. That leaves me disappointed, but the fault is mine. Bill Morgan is an archivist and this is nothing if not an archive. It’s just not much more than that.

Peter Orlovsky, as Allen Ginsberg’s companion and lover for over 40 years, was in the thick of the Beat Movement and chronicling his experiences in his journal for much of it. Through his eyes and voice, the travels and musings of many key figures in the movement are witnessed extensively: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, and Neal Cassady. As Ann Charters notes in the Foreward, “For literary historians, Peter’s account of his daily life with Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, and Burroughs is probably the most detailed we will ever have.” Also seen are a lot of drugs, sex and jazz/rock-n-roll/punk. These are the key figures and key subjects that the movement is known for. In a more conservative time, the beats pushed the envelope and were open and experimental with their drugs and their sexuality both in words and action:

[excerpt from a Nov. 03, 1958 letter from Peter Orlovsky to Gregory Corso] ” . . . Jack [Kerouac] has been banging us [Orlovsky and Ginsberg] for being queers–especially when he’s drunk–so I, when Jack comes on like this, go after Jack with outpouring of love and raping him with words. . . . A few days ago . . . [Bach] was playing and such beautiful music that we all danced to it and it was so beautiful I started to blow Allen and Jack [was] sitting there–Allen was so scared and shy in front of Jack that he wanted to go into the other room, but I wanted to blow Allen while he danced to beautiful music, so angel magical it sounded–I’m tired of being afraid of Jack and shying my words up . . . “

Undoubtedly, for those interested in the lives of the Beats, this scrap book of letters and journals will satisfy. It also gives almost equal time to Peter’s letters and journals to and about his family which proved to be illuminating. The book starts with Peter at 21, months before meeting Allen. He’s been discharged from the army as psychologically unfit citing “schizophrenia, paranoid.” His parents have split while each spending time in psychiatric hospitals. Eventually, Peter and all four siblings of his will spend time in psychiatric hospitals. Terms such as frontal lobotomy and electroshock therapy get thrown around. Needless to say, Peter is not exactly stable before he starts to experiment with, use and abuse drugs.

I was disappointed, however, because I wanted to see the letters and poetry contextualized. I did not want this book to be a companion. We see the letters that Peter wrote, but none of the replies, nothing written to him. I don’t want to have to look up the letters to Peter to fill in the conversations. This was especially true of the poetry. I wanted to see the poetics at work. The Beats changed the game with poetry; they broke and re-wrote the rules. Peter was there when Allen wrote and read Howl for the first time. Peter also later lectured on poetry. But, no copies of a single lecture are included. What he had to say on the subject of poetics is conspicuously missing. Charters wrote that Peter inspired Beat writers with his “emotionally naked, loopy, and occasionally luminescent poetry,” while Morgan wrote that Peter “failed to realize that each of those writers had been influenced by knowing Peter and witnessing his free-spirited way of approaching life.” Not one example of another writer citing Orlovsky’s poetry or stylings is included. Morgan also tells the reader that Orlovsky’s handwriting was atrocious and spelling horrendous, leading to much re-editing [and guessing] on his part to create readable text. I think a single image of an Orlovsky original would make that point. But none are included. Finally, in a note on a journal entry deemed a prose-poem, Morgan says that the entry was later turned into verse and then back into a prose-poem. I would have appreciated the inclusion of those later iterations, but they too are not included.

This book does exactly what it sets out to do: be a scrapbook for Orlovsky’s journals and letters. It does not do what I had hoped, but I may not be the target audience. My Master’s is in Creative Writing Poetry, so I am interested in the poetics, the philosophy, the lectures and the process. In particular, my undergraduate thesis was on the “transformations of American poetics” coming out of WWII. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was my main case study. I was not interested in drug-fueled three-ways . . . but that is what this book has to offer. I received an uncorrected first proof of this book and a nice letter from Paradigm Publishers through Goodreads. Hopefully, that did not taint my view.
[Check out my other reviews here.]


Review: “For the Good for All” by Yvonne Navarro

3 of 5 stars.

Appearing in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran, this very short story is barely more than a vignette. Fida is the proprietor of Broxton House, a boarding house. However, the populous has largely succumbed to a zombie apocalypse including all of her boarders. Surprisingly, her boarders all wandered back “home” indicating some sort of residual memory. This is all the proof that Fida needs to maintain her faith and to keep each boarder’s sad life’s story alive until she can save them.

Fida’s goal of providing salvation for the damned and her Catholic upbringing lead her to seek a Catholic resolution in the form of the Sacrament of Communion and a modern day miracle. She has more trouble convincing the local priests that are still around that this is a worthwhile endeavor.

This vignette would not have worked as a full short story. But in its brevity, this tale works. The nicest touch is briefly sharing the stories of the living-dead housemates, from the relapsed heroin addict to the runaway teens hiding a four month pregnancy from parents that would’ve driven the star-crossed lovers apart.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Captive Hearts” by Brian Keene

3 of 5 stars.

Appearing in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran, this vignette does not rise to the level of being a full short story which is a good thing in this case. With any more length and scrutiny, this set-up would have likely crumpled.

The scene opens with Gina threatening more physical (and psychological) harm to Richard, her one-time boss. His extremities are already handcuffed to all four corners of the bed. He flickers in and out of consciousness due to prolonged captivity–bedsores blossom, his fighting has weakened. She’s removed nine of his ten toes despite his living screams.

This is a scenario of misguided survival and revenge. As the plague raged, Gina stayed behind with her wheel-chair-bound husband, Paul. She quickly descends to great depths of depravity, all to resist accepting the reality of her situation which is not sustainable. There’s no where for this story to go, and it thankfully doesn’t.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “An Unfortunate Incident at the Slaughterhouse” by Harper Hull

4 of 5 stars.

Included in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran, this short story marries the 1993 Mad Cow Panic to the contemporary concerns over GMOs. The narrator works at a modern, “organic”, non-GMO farm in Cheshire, England that has both Herefords for slaughter and Friesians for milking. He and his work-pals, Will and Jack, notice a sick milking cow attacking, biting at, other members of her herd. The madness spreads to a couple of the bitten cows. In short order, all of the sick cows are killed, a few others have been trampled. A vet, Dr. Bloom [“Dr. Doom”], takes blood samples from the dead cows while milk distribution is suspended. Beef distribution has not.

It’s not long before some of the Hereford’s start to exhibit strange behaviors. . . .

There are so many reasons to love this story. Firstly, it shows the first moments of the “sickness” and the actions of the Patient Zero. Secondly, the cautionary tale so closely echoes the dozens of farm-infection scares that make the news every year and the reactions to head off disaster. Thirdly, it centers the questions What are we putting in our bodies? and What is going into the bodies of the certified-safe animals that are farmed for human consumption? This tale is highly recommended.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” by David J. Schow

1 of 5 stars.

Included in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran, this short story splits its time between the characters of Wormboy and Jerry until they chance to meet at the climax of the story. Wormboy is a grotesquely obese young man who has holed up in a cemetery since the undead had already abandoned it in search of living bodies to feast upon. He has built up an arsenal and heavy defenses for his fortification including a spike-laden moat and landmines and trip wires. He revels in this post-apocalyptic world as he has outsurvived all the bullies that had tormented him. He wears the name they gave him, with pride: Wormboy. He has even prospered and grown larger in this apocalypse due to his habit of preying on zombies. Yes, eating them. He’s been eating his enemies since . . .

Jerry is an evangelist preacher not far from the cemetery [but unaware of Wormboy] who has a new flock of followers [Jerry’s kids] that are all zombies. He is able to keep them from attacking him by offering communion in the form of rattlesnake venom from serpents he tends and milks himself. For Jerry the entire zombie apocalypse is spiritual. The living are the sinful monsters; the victims are the judged sinners; the zombies are the risen chosen ones.

Neither character is believable in situation nor motivation, nor are they enjoyable. The lampooning of evangelists is too heavy-handed even for this atheist. Zombies eat man: man eats Zombies::man eats man; man symbolically eats man. Throw in snakes biting man and man consuming snake venom and you get fanaticism.

My aversion roots in that zombie stories are about the loss and struggle of humanity, but this story offers no humanity with which to struggle or potentially lose. Just gore. Lots of gore.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks” by Joe R. Lansdale

2 of 5 stars.

This short story, included in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran, is long on imagination. The setting is a dystopian, post-zombie-apocalyptic wasteland of lawlessness deep enough into the future that genetically modified animals have been created for purposes of bestiality among other things. Wayne, the protagonist, is a bounty hunter in the Western deserts of the US. Despite the apocalypse happening in his lifetime, new cultural mainstays have cropped up, such as Meat Boys [who traffic zombies after they’ve removed the hands and muzzled the faces to render the zombies harmless], and Dead Dancing Bars [in which patrons dance and grope with muzzled zombies with the option of making a more intimate connection with the undead body if the patron wishes]. There are also wild zombies about. And more fully tamed ones. . . .

Not everything in this world is explained, such as the Cadillac desert in which vast numbers of Cadillacs are buried on end with dead bodies still in the cars. Somehow this had to do with gunned-mounted Chevys and Cadillacs warring against each other–the why is not explained. The world is also uber-sexualized with sex as a commodity, possibly the commodity. [ie sex workers, zombie sex workers, animal sex workers, sexual religious cults]. To say that it felt gratuitous is an understatement.

Timelines and the rules of how zombies work, seemed vague and confused. A person implicated in the contamination of humankind with the zombie bacterium is alive and not necessarily old, yet the new cultural realities seem quite established. Some zombies also seem to be mind-controlled, though most act mindless, or simple. Another zombie seems to have the full range of thoughts, desires [sexual included] and motivations. It was also hard to understand why a person with a Frankenstein-complex, would purposely damage tissues and organs that he wanted to harvest for death-defying purposes.

Despite the considerable length of this short story, I could not wrap my head around the hows and whys of the scenes and situations. If the purpose was just to cram plenty of guns, jacked-up vehicles, zombies, and raunchy sex into a story, then it succeeded. Unfortunately, I wanted more than that.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Saga, Volume 4

Saga, Volume 4 (Saga #19-24)Saga, Volume 4 by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The series continues with the brilliant graphics of Fiona Staples conveying the emotions and motivations of the many characters. The story is moving forward with the narrator, Hazel, now a toddler walking and minimally speaking.

The previous volume showed the many ways people feel kinship and define family and love. This next installment counters those arguments, showing how relationships fall apart and in what ways loneliness and alone-ness can take hold. The wedges driven between the characters are many: substance abuse, work, isolation, kidnapping, prejudice, estrangement, misunderstandings, a name whispered in one’s sleep, and an untimely death. Every relationship is tried and shaken. The brilliance is in showing how “some nights, even two old friends deciding to get as close as humanly possible . . . . could still be worlds apart.’ Often, it’s the other characters acting as catalysts to strained and changed relationships. As Hazel notes, “A lot of people who came into my family’s life looking like heroes ended up acting more like villains. I wish I could say the opposite was also true, but that was pretty f**king rare.”

The many estrangements lead to some rather interesting new partnerships that shake up the possibilities of what’s to come. This entire series is highly recommended.

Check out my reviews for other installments of Saga:
Saga, Volume 1
Saga, Volume 2
Saga, Volume 3
[Check out my other reviews here.]