Review of Sara Moore Wagner’s HOOKED THROUGH

Sara Moore Wagner. Five Oaks Press, $14 paperback ISBN: 9781944355258

To explain death and love to children, adults often use folklore, myths, fairy tales. In telling these stories, adults teach themselves as well. Hooked Through is a mother’s beautiful, emotional, and at times grotesque attempt to explain the suicide of a close family member to her child and herself. This short collection is full of deep, mysterious grief. Reading these poems truly makes you feel hooked, lifted, and raw.
     The collection begins with a narrative anchor in “Like a Fish”, where the speaker is in the hospital with a loved one who has recently shot himself. Suddenly the wound becomes visible behind the bandage, but the speaker must ignore this ugly reality and instead tell the nurse a story:

He hammered my mother’s
wedding ring out of a quarter,
I say, because I don’t know
what to look at. Too many
rings and hooks. Too many.

Death turns us all into fishes,
green and gasping.


An Aorta with Branches: A Travelogue
Deborah Wood. Sunnyoutside Press, $12 hand-bound chapbook (32p) ISBN: 978-1-934513-56-9

In this beautifully crafted poetry chapbook, the speaker begins with an idea of a beginning, a starting over, and, early on, slips in perhaps the finest October simile this reader has ever come across: “October is like hugging in sweaters.” Readers are taken on a road trip of two companions that, given the order of the titles/locations, appears to move from California to New York. Surprising sentences populate the work, such as this line from the opening poem: “Some days I believe the world is flat, wish the day/was full of only useless things, remember I am/only a number, that flowers fall out of fashion.” And sensory treats abound like “...and all of a sudden the car/smells of onions.” There’s a recurrence of the idea that “things are happening”, internally and externally, and there’s also a spiritual frustration in which “...we cannot close the gap/between ourselves and things.”  The speaker notes that our desire for simplicity is frequently clouded by our want to complicate, sharply stating: “But the simple explanation is not always/the one we want.” This brief and dynamic work of making maps, making a new life, and moving forward is sure to delight readers while also leaving them wanting more. (March 2017)

“Terrible Things Await You” Review of Cavolo and McClanahan’s THE INCANTATIONS OF DANIEL JOHNSTON

The Incantations of Daniel Johnston
Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan. Two Dollar Radio, $17.95 paperback (132p) ISBN: 9781937512453

     The other day I saw a documentary on Darius McCollum, a man with Asperger syndrome who’s been imprisoned nineteen times for impersonating employees of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). McCollum had no malicious intentions with these MTA impersonations, he just really, really wanted to conduct buses and trains. Since he was a kid, McCollum has been obsessed with the landscapes of rails and roads, the experience of moving from one space into the next. He’s memorized schedules and maps, “borrowed” uniforms, practiced and mastered the language of a world which, for him, is magical. For McCollum, the world of transit is so magical its wonder overshadows all threat of arrest, overpowers all self preservation.
     His mind makes this world so beautiful: channels of movement and bodies and sound wherein everyone has a place and a role and each thing is connected.
     His mind makes this world so dangerous: tunnels of darkness, desire so powerful that he repeats his mistakes—taking crazy risks—just to be part of it.

Review of Christopher Kang’s WHEN HE SPRANG FROM HIS BED…

Christopher Kang. Green Mountains Review Press, $15 paperback (141p) ISBN: 978-0-9963342-3-5

Despite or because of their brevity, the 880 tiny hard-to-categorize pieces that fill these pages demand our attention. With shifting POVs and a hybrid blend of poetry and prose, the pieces (which are titled by number) contain a range of the unattainable where feelings and acts are often represented as objects. Confusion, for example, is a tangible thing to be left somewhere, and a confession can be pried open and explored. In “538”, “He uncovers in the crisis a smooth and flat layer of apathy.” Kang’s superb writing lends a real physicality to human experience, bending and enhancing the reader’s perception. Longer pieces, though no single piece ever fills a page, allow for a broader range of movement, as in “15” which begins with a sudden death and then ends with an image of a severed hand providing nutrients to a plant. Recurring themes such as loss—violence and the suggestion of violence abound early on—and memory are depicted, often beautifully and with great surprise. “457”: “After her death, he stands naked in front of the mirror and imagines she is hiding behind him.” While each piece exists as a standalone, Kang’s slow and careful tone provides cohesion, his words shining spotlights down hallways of self, showing how we learn, fear, and build. These pieces are sharp verses in a song of shape and motion, of the making of human moments, of the setting and spirit of human lives. Categorically elusive, this stunning work is best known by experiencing it. “64”: “He lies motionless in the rain. A train approaches and roars. He is dreaming of everything.” (February 2017)

“To duplicate and to be duplicitous” Review of James Tadd Adcox’s REPETITION

James Tadd Adcox. Cobalt Press, $10 paperback (65p) ISBN: 978-1941462171

            When writing my academic letters of interest, I almost always use a basic, self-made template. Within this template, there is a paragraph whose details shiftever-so slightlyto strategically recalibrate this portrait of myself as an academic. With a few performative clicks of the keys, selective liberal arts college becomes research institution, the phrase diversity becomes polyvocality, and the name of some press or some magazine shifts to some craftily emphasized other. I am the puppet master of this bullshit theater of myself: hovering, pulling, snipping strings to my own dancing simulacra!
            Such is the absurd performative tapestry of James Tadd Adcoxs Repetition, a devastatingly honest and humorous novella. Framed from the fictional but excruciatingly realistic perspective of an aspiring (untenured) Assistant Professor, Repetition follows his account of a conference dedicated to Constantin Constantius, the fictional performance of a real philosopher (aka the pseudonym of Søren Kierkegaard.) Herein, academias hierarchies, rituals, and unspoken rules of engagement are beautifully deconstructed, all within the context (as we later learn) of the narrators necessary recollection, his repetitive reconstruction of events.

Review of Matthew Vollmer’s GATEWAY TO PARADISE

Gateway to Paradise
Matthew Vollmer. Persea Books, $10.35 paperback (184p) ISBN: 978-0892554669

Matthew Vollmer’s short story collection Gateway to Paradise is a gateway into lives veering off course, from a teenager unwittingly pulled into a homicide to a father struggling to keep his family together while under house arrest. Through their often surreal predicaments, the collection explores a universal dilemma in surprising and memorable ways.
     In “Downtime,” a dentist tries desperately to move on from the death of his wife, who is not cooperating. In “Dog Lover,” a woman admits to a radio show host that she has more in common with her dog than her husband, and decides to put her theory to the test. In “Scoring,” a teacher is seduced by a nail-buffing woman at the mall while attending the AP readings miles away from his wife and family, only to find that what the woman wants goes way beyond a quickie in the fitting room.
     All of the characters in the collection are stuck in the awkward space between the physical and sublime, and Vollmer’s deft and powerful writing drives this home. The dentist is haunted not only by his wife, but by “Mouths—where bacteria flourished, where puffy gums bled at the slightest touch, where teeth had been worn down to little eraser-sized nubs, and where incomprehensively fat tongues slapped against his rubber-gloved fingers.” At the same time, he confesses that mouths, “after all, had saved him.” In the title story, the main character finds a Happy Meal box “nestled like a gaudy temple among a bed of ferns,” only to discover “somebody’s turd” inside. She sees “Amish boys with bowl cuts fervently tonguing soft-serve cones.”

Review of Mayank Bhatt’s BELIEF

Mayank Bhatt. Mawenzi House, $24.95 US paperback (200p) ISBN: 978-1-927494-80-6

Newly unemployed, and seeking to develop his computer skills, Abdul Latif opens his son’s laptop and discovers evidence of a terrorist plot. He immediately turns his son, Rafiq, into the police. Heartbroken, he and his wife watch as his son is arrested and “frog-marched” out of their townhouse. They arrange for a lawyer, attend the hearing, and remember. As they travel the labyrinths of their past, Rafiq struggles to cope with the harassment of other inmates, his interrogations by two agents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the truth.
    Bhatt’s probing into the deeper reasons why some young Muslims can become disaffected is worthy of respect. He never takes the easy out but explores issues that are often left unexamined, such as the chronic underemployment of immigrants and their identification with their coreligionists ‘back home.’ Thus, Abdul and Ruksana work long hours at minimum wage jobs, raising their family in a one-bedroom apartment until, at last, their children can buy them a townhouse. Huddled together in front of a Hindi channel, the family is rocked by violent riots back in Mumbai. Abdul’s depression at losing his job is offset by the breeze in their small backyard, but that small patch of earth is small comfort for a son agitated by what he perceives as worldwide injustice. At the time of his arrest, Rafiq is twenty-two years old and incapable of empathizing with his parents’ sedate appreciation of their kitchen and its appliances.