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If It Is Your Life

James Kelman. Other Press, $15.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-159051-622-5

The latest collection from Booker Prize-winning Kelman (How Late It Was, How Late) is a scruffy volume of 19 stories, told in the author's trademark stream-of-consciousness, first-person style. Narratives zigzag throughout—protagonists ramble and travel the earth—yet only a handful of tales genuinely thrill. The title story, while somewhat charming, ruminates far too long on the neurosis of a college student (mostly concerning classism and sex) as he rides a bus to his hometown, and this lingering squashes any goodwill by the narrative's climax. Much better is the trifecta of "A Sour Mystery," "Man to Man," and "The Gate." In "A Sour Mystery," the adult male protagonist nervously walks with an ex-lover to a local bar. "Man to Man" finds a tavern patron ruminating on the idea of cowardice, to powerful effect. And in "The Gate," a grandfather buys a used bicycle for his grandson, only to get lost as he carries the contraption home. Men of a similar age also inhabit "The Third Man, or else the Fourth," a story wound around a group of older gents as they sit around a makeshift fire and discuss local news while waiting for a horserace. Though uneven, Kelman's collection is versatile. (July)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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From Out of the City

John Kelly. Dalkey Archive, $14.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-62897-000-5

Kelly's inventive, overwritten tale of double-dealing and moral vacancy unfurls amidst a backdrop of Machieavellian politics in a broken Dublin, 10 years after the Jerusalem War. The President of the United States, a drug-fueled libertine in love with his cockapoo, Elvis, has been shot dead at a dinner in his honor. On a dilapidated street in the town of Dún Laoghaire, we meet a trifecta of pitiable characters whose lives are indirectly upheaved by the aftershock of the assassination. There's our pleonastic, senescent narrator, an isolated voyeur with a surveillance headquarters in his attic, his main target, Schroeder, a former wunderkind turned drunk academic obsessed with the busty TV news reporter Paula Viola; and Walton, a porn-addicted hermit strapped to a wheelchair. This oddball ensemble unfortunately lacks sufficiently developed motivations, which in turn plot the course of this uneven story. The narrator's jarring interventions do the novel a further disservice: "I appreciate that there are elements of the thriller now creeping into the narrative…" he explains, "and indeed there will be more heightened scenes soon." Kelly proves himself as an imaginative storyteller with a keen eye for the absurdly depraved, but the overall result of the novel is scattershot. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Road to Emmaus

Spencer Reece. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24 (144p) ISBN 978-0-374-28085-7

Reece, in his follow-up to 2001's The Clerk's Tale, displays virtues may not be rare, taken individually, but are unique in their combination; writing about places—in Florida, New England, Europe—with sardonic detail, and telling stories of people who might be at home in Henry James. Reece has an eye for the bizarre, but strives to sum things up as he addresses love between men, middle age, and worldly disappointment with raw feeling, and he directs his passion not only outward and inward, but upward, towards the Christian God. In a 17-part meditation about Reece's former partner in Florida, ducks on a pond "quack-quacked,/ copulating into oblivion as if sex were religion./ When I could not reach what I loved,/ the world was rent." When Reece released his celebrated debut he was a menswear salesman in Palm Beach; he has now been ordained as an Episcopal priest (a memoir is forthcoming). That journey from one place to another, one vocation to another, informs the whole book, which encompasses self-disgust but begins and ends with compassion, from "the neonatal ICU" (where Reece served as a hospital chaplain) to a walk in a park, and a gay marriage, in New York, where "The Gospel of John was right:/ the world holds so much life." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Particle and Wave

Benjamin Landry. Univ. of Chicago, $18 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-0-226-09619-3

"We need new art," Landry asserts in his debut collection, "And I don't mean a resin toilet./ And I don't mean another naked conversation with the artist." He continues in manifesto-like tone: "The children whose work it is/ to take apart CPUs/ demand new meaning,/ new treatment." In poems named for elements in the periodic table, Landry shifts freely but delicately from image to image, like the "painter of bottles" who works with "brushes/ of eyelash." Throughout the poems, selves are fluid and the distinctions between "I," "we," and "you" are blurred or effaced—object becoming subject; subject, object. "We arose from each other in a scattering of articles—a, the, an—definite bodies in the indefinite morning." Just as the book's title underscores the power of observation—light becoming particle when observed directly; as a wave, indirectly—readers might observe that a poetry mimicking the essentially arbitrary movement of elemental particles might be, in itself, also essentially meaningless: "Ghosts full of advice," he writes, in Silicon, "appeared among the villagers.// The mountain sloughed minerals,/ altering the coast." But when energy does not escape from his fissions and fusions, Landry succeeds in creating a new lyricism of the magical and the absurd. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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For Another Writing Back

Elaine Bleakney. Sidebrow (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (66p) ISBN 978-1-940090-00-9

Through lyrical, essayistic prose poems, Bleakney's debut collection examines and interrogates everyday occurrences; interweaving news, illness, television, and landscape across six untitled sections as she summons and questions speech and silence. In one passage, Bleakney juxtaposes reality television with an atmospheric walk, dog in tow: "The housewives on television gather in one of their houses to receive racks of clothes... I saw a hawk build her nest and Ingrid waited with me, sniffed around." Elsewhere, Bleakney offsets personal and public history: "It may take a hundred years to cool, for the shaken reactors in Fukushima to reach cold. The summer Elizabeth and John's son was born it was too hot to move." Bleakney is concerned with the exchange between reader and writer, as well as how the book conceals and reveals: "When we get to the page where the bunny's in the corner with dandelions or drift: there he is. Where he's been and he wasn't before. We read. I mean we trace him to us." Similarly, she reflects on her role as a writer through the voices of other writers, "Emerson talks about ‘The Poet'; who is this? Silence in the room again." Bleakney's meditative and searching poems artfully assemble not a linear narrative, but an evocative consideration of a life. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon

Willie Perdomo. Penguin, $18 (66p) ISBN 978-0-14-312523-5

Dedicated to his uncle Pedro, who played percussion on studio albums by salsa great Charlie Palmieri, Perdomo (Smoking Lovely) opens his third collection with a salvo of sonnets and creation stories that try to imagine how his uncle came to inhabit the book's eponymous nickname (itself a nod to a story from the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café of a homeless poet with the same name). Written as a series of "takes," these poems ask questions about Shorty's life and evade themselves with flare and a smirk when they answer. "How did Shorty play it again?" Perdomo writes. "Like his birth certificate/ was lost forever." Though these poems can stand on the strength of their cadence and vocabulary alone—with their "salseros, the real-live soneros,/ the palo-players that gang-busted/ dancehalls with fish-crate yambú"—Perdomo broadens our understanding of his uncle by including a series of monologues in which he speaks candidly about Rose, a woman he loved "the way we tremble / in the glow of dead ass truth."(Rose herself is given a chance to speak in a series of epistles) With a selection of endnotes that doubles as a primer in Puerto Rican arts and culture, Perdomo's work is a sprawling and ambitious take on death and the concept of legacy. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dido in Winter

Anne Shaw. Persea (Norton, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-89255-429-4

Shaw (Undertow) marks with a sharp eye and a fine ear this technically astute and pleasingly varied—if sometimes overwrought—set of personae, verse-letters, and poems of spiritual meditation and romantic love. She has a way with the single image, making icons out of casual observations ("Bright amnesiac instance,/ little red thread on my jeans") and has fun with impersonations, as Virgil's abandoned Queen Dido of Carthage exchanges verse apologias with Hans Christian Andersen's little match girl. Other poems pursue Eros and agape through unanswered cries and through filmic scenes: "Shapes of birds on the river. Slight backscatter of snow"; "As if in simple ransack, gin-light/ snapping backwards in the sky." Passionate and unafraid of artifice, Shaw "will drop ink on your tongue to be sure you speak no ill/ till the workmen come with leather in their hands." The collection is notable for its variety of free-verse shapes: extended lines, choppy ones, monostichs, quick digressions, long looks at "how strangely things unmoor themselves," and even a play on sentences from Gertrude Stein. More skeptical readers may wonder what sets these points of view apart from other poetry on the same topics, and whether there is a subject, a stance, or a claim about language and life that Shaw has yet to make her own. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Courier's Archive & Hymnal

Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Sidebrow (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (56p) ISBN 978-0-9814975-9-4

In the third book (after Swamp Isthmus) of his No Volta pentalogy, Wilkinson conjures a bewildering, unsettling landscape where one feels the "blindness of being partway down the stairs." The poems here are more concerned with atmosphere and texture than narrative sense or intelligibility; never does one feel safely grounded or aware of what lay ahead (indeed, "the question now was not even toward what, but instead which path out?"). Rather, Wilkinson leads readers through a phantasmagorical dream world, his halting syntax and disorienting perspectives acting as a short tether. It becomes evident that the courier-speaker only exists as a ghostly facsimile, one decidedly more obfuscated than in this book's predecessor. These poems may only be accessible in the context of the pentalogy, as finding an associative entry point into this ghost-speaker's world is like trying to grab a fistful of moonlight while wondering, "What armors the birds?" Wilkinson, it seems, is conscious of his tenuous foothold on the precipice: "What I am trying to photograph stalls out, pastes itself to the sun-bleached poster of the shop." In filling pages with these dense, haunting text blocks, Wilkinson reminds us that, even if memory is reduced to a sieve piecing together ethereal imagery, "Your whereabouts remain with you." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Churches

Kevin Prufer. Four Way (UPNE, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (90p) ISBN 978-1935536437

Prufer (In a Beautiful Country) suffuses a landscape of strange, near-apocalyptic Americana with off-kilter religiosity and consciousness of mortality, featuring statesmen, children, lovers, a dying father, and the scepter-like presence of a young daughter. "Then the sun came up and all around there was nothing but garbage," Prufer writes. "In the flu-infected city/ the schoolchildren sleep/ while overhead, the lead-inflected/ sky begins to weep." Strangeness abounds, where surgeons leave instruments inside patients' bodies, birds of prey feed on fishermen, and childhood experience morphs into surreal memory. "There ought to be a word/ that suggests/ how we're balanced at the very tip of history/ and behind us/ everything speeds irretrievably away," he says, and it's this sense of ever-revised and ever-so-distorted historicity that gives these poems the tenor of a fable or story passed down generations: "In those days, you could leave your child at the city's edge for the wolves... Here are your pills... three little bugs in a paper cup." Through the backward glancing, Prufer uncannily circles to the present, letting it recede to make way for an alarming future: "All night long/ I watched the tracers fall... so I could see/ the Tetons' row of jagged teeth,/ the Great Lakes winking/ like mirror shards/ or fields of Kansas wheat,/ lustrous in the magnesium glare." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Burning Door

Tony Leuzzi. Tiger Bark (SPD, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-9860445-2-6

At times frank and tender, at others intensely visceral ("A starving man eats/ maggots, dies."), Leuzzi (Radiant Losses) exhibits a "delicate ferocity" through an array of acrobatic verbal stunts. Leuzzi draws from his experience as a visual artist, employing with poetic delight a hodgepodge of various forms without sacrificing emotional vulnerability. His knowledge of assemblage art becomes readily apparent when he moves from lyric to prose poems and, finally, a long sequential piece at the book's conclusion. Leuzzi also considers a great breadth of topics, highlighting verbal aptitude when talking about the intersecting points of religion, childhood, and homosexual love within the collection's narrative thread. "In some worlds leaving means return," he declares early on, giving a sense of exploring new territory (and the possibility of a return); but as the book continues, there's an incipient sense that in this particular world there is no return but only a continuous exploration. "A port is a portal," and the poet reminds us that home is "Huckleberry's raft/ seeking asylum somewhere along/ the not-/ just-any-old-river." Leuzzi's disparate elements come together in an immaterial haze: "that moment when// you// are caught in a dream/ and part of you knows you're dreaming." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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