Poetry Review: Straight James / Gay James by James Franco

Straight James/Gay JamesStraight James/Gay James by James Franco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collective work falls in line with poetic performance art pieces more than it does a poetry chapbook as James Franco explores many aspects of persona. The poetics by itself is passable but never sublime. However, the teasing and toying of personal versus public persona and the concept of a person as a series of situational masks work together to elevate this collection into something greater than the sum of its parts.

James Franco is famous. He knows it, as does his reader. So rather than shirk the mantle, he embraces it through caricatures of himself, not unlike his self-portrayal in This is the End. His open awareness of putting a collection out there as a celebrity is enough to assign the entire speaker voice to character-public persona. Meanwhile, one must assume that the closest he gets to being away from the celebrity persona is with his own family which makes many appearances throughout the collection.

The second poem in the collection, “Mask,” shows his stance when he describes himself as “White, young, lusty, Sym- / Metrical, dark browed; / This mask is the face / Of Gucci, officially.” This is not the voice of someone convinced of his own importance. And yet it is a role he gladly fills “back to wherever the cameras need me,” he notes in “Custom Hotel.” Aside from the masks of actor, poet and celebrity, James hints at his masks as brother and son. Also present are masks that he ascribes to devils and serial killers. There is a darkness waiting to be understood. In “Black Death”, James considers the persona of LA serial killer Richard Ramirez, preying on James’ chosen town. He also draws connections to his process of exploring masks, with the process employed by poet mentor, Frank Bidart, and other artists he admires, Lana Del Rey and James Dean.

While many poems cite specific moments or jobs in Franco’s life, a cluster of 3 in the middle speak of and to his brothers. Throughout them, one gets the sense that James both sees himself more clearly and loses himself in them. From “Brother One:”

Sometimes two brothers split.
Their looks are so similar

They could be twins,
But inside, one takes the dark

Road, and one takes the light.
Tom followed my father

Yet more confusion and potentially jealousy surface in “Brother Two” about James’ youngest brother, Dave, who followed him into Hollywood. “There are probably myriad little things we both do, handed down through DNA, and from proximity to the love of the same parents. / I try not to look for these things, because I’ll think that they’re mine, and that he has stolen them.”

Inescapable is the blatantly queer title to the collection shared with a fictional interview at the end of the collection in which two personae discuss James’ sexuality. Sexuality is yet another mask for James, but gender is not. An earlier poem, “Hello Woman,” laments:

If I ever got high, it would be to be
The woman. If I ever did porn,
I’d want to be the woman.
I don’t want to be the man in woman

I just want to be woman.
But I will never be woman.
I am man, trapped in man.
I have no escape from this body.

In the interview “Straight James / Gay James” which originally appeared in a magazine, the two characters discuss what it means to knowingly have fame and a public persona. Ironically, Straight James plays more coy, while Gay James plays it more, er, straight:

GJ: But my question is, who is the real James, and who is the mask?

SJ: . . . I like my queer persona. I like that it’s so hard to define me and that people always have to guess about me. . . Not that I do what I do to confuse people, but as long as they are confused, I get to play.

SJ: . . . It’s not like I call the paparazzi on myself or anything like that; I’m just having a conversation with the public. If you don’t want to be part of the convo, check out.

GJ: Is this interview a nonfictional statement about who you are?
SJ: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I am as James Franco, but no in the sense that it is a public statement in an entertainment magazine, which means that it is part of my public persona and not my private veridical self.

This collection is no place to look for real personal insight about Franco, but it does master the craft of persona in many little ways. It’s also honest in its dishonesty. And not without humor:

GJ: Okay, let’s kiss in the mirror again.
SJ: You got it, baby.
(They kiss.)

I received my copy of this collection through NetGalley.

[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Cat Lady by Mary M. Schmidt

Cat LadyCat Lady by Mary M. Schmidt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A modern day folktale comes to life in this narrative poem of 125 tightly metered rhyming couplets ending with a message.

A Cat Lady, Maria, in Rome goes out of her way to feed the feral cats. At least one passerby call the cat lady a witch [Strega], and they are likely right for she talks to cats and they talk back. In particular, she has befriended Bast, a mother cat, and her three curious kittens.

She tells Bast and the kits that kindly Cardinal Mezzaluna, who makes sure the cats get fed, had a mission for the Cat Lady, which also shows that he accepts her abilities. He confesses that he loved a woman, Anne Marie, but due to his vows, they swore to part and never see each other again in this life. In his dying state, he longs to know if she remembers him.

Maria uses a spell to detect the Cardinal’s love and it pulls across the sea to America where Anne-Marie reveals that she respected his vows and his love–she never forgot and never took another love. The Cat Lady is able to let him know before he dies, after which the feral cats of Rome lead Mezzaluna to his afterlife.

The kits are distraught that the obits mention his wondrous deeds, but not his love. . .

I received my copy of this narrative poem directly from the author through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Animal Land, an Allegorical Fable by Leland James

Animal Land, An Allegorical FableAnimal Land, An Allegorical Fable by Leland James
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This fully illustrated allegorical take on WWII aims to introduce major components of the war to children in the form of a free verse narrative poem divided into stanzas of shape poetry. Thankfully, the seriousness of war is not reduced to cloying couplets. The shapes of the stanzas are arbitrary and add nothing to the poetry, but the alliteration is chewed to good effect, appropriate for a story completely “peopled” with animals.

Comparisons have been made to Aesop’s Fables (possibly) and Animal Farm (not at all), but these miss the mark. Unlike Animal Farm and Watership Down using animals to portray forms of governments, this story merely replaces people with animals for a heavily stripped-down, simplified version of WWII. Unlike The Complete Maus which showed the horrors of the war albeit with animals, this tale does not hit anything from the war except with the broadest of strokes. The occupations of mainland Europe are off-page and largely undescribed [with the exception of misleadingly mentioning enslaving the citizens of occupied countries].

The allegorical version of the Holocaust is boiled down to an irrational hatred and caging of songbirds. Zero atrocities are shown or described. The Russian front is reduced to a single winter siege. The Americans [Eagles] sweep in and end the war quickly, while the British hold out. It’s all too simplified, or misleading to be of educational value. This is a war without rationing nor air raids that accidentally implies the Japanese were in the European campaign for the first half of the story.

The strength of this story is in getting its point across about leaders and leadership. Winston Churchill [a badger], Franklin Roosevelt [an eagle] and Adolph Hitler [a mutant crocodile with a dog’s head] all are described, [and wonderfully drawn by illustrator Anne Zimanski]. The case is made for action over capitulation and being pro-active rather than reactive. It also snipes at decisions by committee and potentially the role of the UN, in general. The hawkish propaganda is clear when inactive leaders are depicted as sleeping possums.

I received my copy of the book when the author contacted me directly through The Book Review Directory, a blog.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Said Beauty To The Blues

Said Beauty to the BluesSaid Beauty to the Blues by Bill Campana
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emerging from the slam poetry scene in Phoenix, this uneven collection is filled with light humor throughout [though trying too hard at times]. Many of the poems clearly arise directly from the poet’s experiences

“luckily the concrete floor broke my fall”

i fell down today

i misjudged the bottom step
while walking down a concrete staircase

nobody was there so it didn’t make a sound . . .
well, i was there, but i wasn’t listening

plus, it was in pitch darkness
so not only did i not make a sound
but there was also nothing to see

don’t ask me how i know it even happened

While humor is the main voice, at times a clear poignancy rears its head. In “light and darkness but mostly darkness and then light again” the poet cuts through sentimentality: “when i die the birds will sing / the same songs they sing now / not one note bluer.” Mortality appears again in “morning song late at night”: “but if you want time / i’ve got plenty / i count seven clocks that have stopped / and two that no longer care / but i’ve got plenty / i feel the hours leaving / and i know just how many / it takes to fill up an empty morning.”

The observational poems, of which there are many, find their strength in challenging perspective. In one case the perspective is twisted fully around to distantly observe the poet.

“upside down”

that spider
has been hanging
upside down
for so long
that it appears
i am the one
suspended from the ceiling
in my chair
binding my saliva
around a spinning chicken leg
until i crawl
into another room

One observation-turned-“list poem” is darkly playful.

“reasons you find a wheelchair in the dumpster”

someone has decided
to start walking again

it wore out and was replaced
with a new one

it wasn’t fast enough

someone is being very cruel

Nature is not a major component of this collection, however there are some surprisingly fresh lines on old muses. [From “the sun, the moon, you, and a brief appearance by me”]: “i saw the moon / sneaking around / faintly visible / while the sun / was still in full bloom / at the other end of the sky / but thinking it over.” Likewise “dust devil ’13” takes a similar tone in showing human impact and un-naturalness: “the dust devil whips it up / in the middle of the street / the field, the steel yard // sending trash high flying / like wild plastic birds / into the thermals / where they hang like hawks.”

Though most of the poems were very short, my favorite was probably the longest, “the go go sixties”. The social commentary is superficially light and deeply penetrating.

[from “the go go sixties”]

. . . the sixties taught me a thing or two

how to make a joke
how to take a joke
how to throw a punch
how to take a punch
the sixties taught me how to be a boy

and to take assassinations like a man
watch the replay as if it were sport
i’ve never seen anything bleed like the sixties
the sixties could overcook a city as if it were a bad meal
and leave a taste in your mouth . . .

I received this collection through Goodreads First Reads.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Zombie Haiku

Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry for Your...BrainsZombie Haiku: Good Poetry for Your…Brains by Ryan Mecum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For a tongue-in-cheek spoof on both haiku and zombie-philia, this collection, which I’ve read twice, proves enjoyable enough to adorn one’s guest bathroom.

There is a structure and plot to the collection which purports to be a haiku journal. It captures the start of the epidemic and even the writer’s transformation to a zombie state. The start is rather like the oblivious start to the movie Shaun of the Dead.

My day starts off bad.
I’m running behind for work.
If I’m late, I’m dead.

Something on the news
about people acting odd,
so I switch to sports.

Dodging eye contact
from my neighbor’s awkward stare,
I leave my nice house.

As I start my car,
my neighbor just keeps staring
and doesn’t wave back.

Rarely does the poetry rise to true haiku status in context, but apparently even full-blown zombies can count out the 5-7-5 syllabic structure. But sometimes, it surprises:

My town is broken.
From this view, I see the end.
Below, they gather.

As I start walking,
I try to remember where
people like to hide.

It is hard to tell
who is food and who isn’t
in the nursing home.

Wheelchair pile-up!
Five old women on the ground,
helpless as babies.

At the beginning and end of the collection are overlaying notes from a second person who wrangled this journal out of the hands of the zombie-poet that bit him. How meta! It’s like re-reading Griffin and Sabine, but with gore. But why am I analyzing this? You get what you pay for with zombie poetry.

Blood is really warm.
It’s like drinking hot chocolate
but with more screaming.

Nothing left but bones.
Blood stains each building corner,
which some of us lick.

Down the empty streets,
my gurgles echo off walls
to which I moan back.

Nothing hurts me now.
Normally, the screwdriver
wouldn’t have gone there.

The crying baby
reminds me of fast food meals
with a prize inside.

[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “The Sea Change” by Neil Gaiman

4 of 5 stars.

This lovely lyric poem captures the movement of water, sea and rain, from its opening lines:

Now is a good time to write this down,
now, with the rattle of the pebbles raked by the waves,
and the slanting rain cold, cold, pattering and spattering
the tin roof until I can barely hear myself think,
and over it all the wind’s low howl. Believe me,
I could crawl down to the blackwaves now,
but that would be foolish . . .

The narrator was born of a fisherman, but promised his mother not to follow his father into the sea after his father “drown in fine weather.” But upon her death, he takes her savings and buys a boat and crew. The descriptions of the toll enacted on the body by lobster fishing evoke flashbacks of the television show Deadliest Catch.

But what compels the narrator to tell his story some twenty years later, are the events of one particular day with a moody sea–his last on her.

The day I write of now, she was shifty, evil-humored,
the wind coming now and now from all four corners
       of the compass,
the waves all choppy. I could not get the measure of her.
We were all out of sight of land when I saw a hand,
saw something, reaching from the gray sea.
Remembering my father, I ran to the prow and called aloud.

No answer but the lonely wail of gulls.
And the air was filled with a whirr of white wings, and then
the swing of the wooden boom, which struck me
       at the base of the skull:
I remember the slow way the cold sea came toward me,
enveloped me, swallowed me, took me for its own.

I tasted salt . . .

The poetics, mostly repetition, assonance and consonance, but also varying line lengths, beautifully convey the tumultuous actions therein. This melding of content and form makes for a very pleasurable read.

This story appears in the latest anthology edited by Paula Guran, Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep, published by Prime Books. “The Sea Change” first appeared in Smoke & Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions (Avon Books, 1998).
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Room Studies

Room StudiesRoom Studies by Brennan Burnside
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a high concept collection that succeeds where so many other concept poetry collections, whether based of erasure, flarf or reclaimed text, fail. Each poem describes an imagined space tightly defined and constrained by the walls defining it. The descriptions are exacting and architectural in nature giving dimensions, materials, colors and relative positions of objects in the room. One can easily imagine each space as an installation piece at a contemporary arts museum, where one could wander from sanctuary to sanctuary, workspace to den to broom closet. Working like a Cindy Sherman photograph, no particular poem is stand-alone successful; it is the accumulative effect and growing sense of the uncanny as one incorporates each new entry into the growing collection.

Near the beginning of the collection, many of the rooms are assigned to deceased celebrities who either died unexpectantly young or remained reclusive until death–Andy Kaufman, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger. A few still living celebrities sneak in also–Billy Corgan, Mickey Rourke and Ron Jeremy. The color-saturated rooms at first seem normal with books left out, televisions left on, cigarettes still smoldering. But people are absent these vignettes. And quirks start to arise. Andy Kaufman’s bomb shelter’s TV has a Howdy Doody episode on loop. Ron Jeremy’s hotel room TV has Debbie Does Dallas on pause. Jim Jones’ champagne room contains a neon-green Holy Bible with an electric cord. Mickey Rouke’s kitchen has a stack of bibles: 3 red, 4 white, 3 blue. The bibles start to stack up: Ron Jeremy has a red hardcover Heilige Bibel, Hoffman’s bedroom has no bed, but it has 400 green bibles, 400 red bibles, 400 blue bibles. Vonnegut has a red bible. Salinger has an illustrated white children’s bible. As the surreal edge seeps into the rooms, so do noise, odors, and worse.

vase breaks, low shuttering thump from above
[from “Andy Kaufman’s Bomb Shelter”]

rosemary incense seeping / through floor
[from “Amy Winehouse’s Panic Room”]

cigarette smoke, fire alarm / screaming
[from “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s bedroom”]

blood creeping from / under the crack
[from “Billy Corgan’s Den”]

At this point the collection gets downright eerie. Two consecutive poems describe rooms in Sandy Hook Elementary School time-stamped 7 minutes apart on the morning of the mass shooting.

chairs with beige cushions overturned . . .
table with black metal legs, overturned, cobwebs on table
legs, sixty-three small styrofoam cups scattered in
south east corner, shattered Kuerig coffee maker, cobwebs . . .

The collection powerfully ends with five poems from the World Trade Center all time-stamped between 9am and 9:03am on 9/11/2001.

[from “World Trade Center Study Room, 9:02 am, 9/11/2001”]

. . brown and black

alarm clock radio, 9:02 am, screaming behind east wall,
quartz crystals explode.

[from “World Trade Center Bathroom, 9:02 am, 9/11/2001”]

single wooden door, crash
bar, florescent light
fixture 6”X20’, one
bulb burns out,
sound of

This collection is observant, thoughtful and terrifying variously, and worth experiencing.
[Check out my other reviews here.]