Reviews


vivekshraya_sheofthemountainsSHE OF THE MOUNTAINS, BY VIVEK SHRAYA
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014
128 pp.

Reviewed by Elena Gross

In the beginning, there is no he. There is no she.

Two cells make up one cell. This is the mathematics behind creation. One plus one makes one. Life begets life. We are the period to a sentence, the effect to a cause, always belonging to someone. We are never our own.

This is why we are so lonely.

These lines open Vivek Shraya’s short novel She of the Mountains and, subsequently, swallowed me up whole. She of the Mountains is a kaleidoscopic odyssey intricately weaving Hindu mythology with one man’s present-day journey to self-discovery and actualization. The cast of players in this postmodern (self)love story range from Hindu god and goddess Shiva and Parvati, to an unnamed narrator growing up in small, suburban Edmonton trying to navigate his own sexual identity and all of the weighty emotional and mental baggage that comes with that struggle. In Shraya’s beautiful and honest prose, the author spins a fairy tale that is at once heartbreaking and hopeful.

She of the Mountains is like no other coming-of-age or coming-out story that I have ever encountered. How many other stories can you name whose central protagonist is an Indian bisexual man madly in love with a woman, interspersed with a fantastical, semi-contemporary re-telling of the goddess Parvati’s creation of the world? However, in spite of its specialness and complexities, Shraya’s tale feels every bit relatable to anyone who has fought and struggled to come to terms with themselves—with all of their quirks, their eccentricities, their flaws, their failures, their weirdness—and choose to love themselves regardless.

She of the Mountains is also, invariably, a story about how love and relationships bind us to one another and radically transform us from the inside out. From the story of Shiva, whose jealousy causes him to accidentally decapitate his own child, to Sundar who searches in vain for his mother’s love in every bite of roti, to our unnamed narrator who finds himself growing monstrous phantom limbs in the absence of his beloved, She of the Mountains seems to recall Judith Butler’s 2004 book Undoing Gender, in which she states, beautifully, “Let’s face it. We are undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire.” [1] In Shraya’s She of the Mountains, there is never desire without grief. There is never grief without desire. There is a mystical dualism always present that never feels fully resolved but does feel like what it truly is to love another and to want, desperately, to love one’s self as well.

But she loves you, he cried. She loves you, she loves you…I love you, he accidentally blurted.

No, you don’t, the other head responded. It was right again.

He was about to surrender when he recalled a memory. They were on her bedroom floor, her body arched into his and his face buried in her hair. His index finger moved slowly but deliberately along her bare back, spelling words, which he punctuated with a kiss. This was how he had told her he loved her, the very first time.

Why had he never thought to apply the same ardour to his own body? What would happen if he did?

He said the words again, this time earnestly, as if it were a prayer:

I
love
you.

The head vanished. His body quivered with an unfamiliar sense of victory. He closed his eyes.


________________________________________
[1] Butler, Judith. “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,”Undoing Gender. Routledge, 2004. pp. 19





Spahr-Buuck_An Army of LoversAN ARMY OF LOVERS, BY JULIANA SPAHR AND DAVID BUUCK
City Lights Publishers, 2013
150 pp.

Reviewed by Adam Park

In a diseased and twisted world where poetry is impotent – why bother engaging in it? In An Army of Lovers Juliana Spahr and David Buuck seek the answer through their avatars, poets Demented Panda and Koki, who wade together through artistic failure, sewage, body horror, Raymond Carver and, finally, triumph (?). Their journey, told in five stories begins with a catastrophic collaboration, summoning excrement, a carnival dystopia, and state-sponsored torture. Demented Panda and Koki want to know, “…how the personal and the political and bodies and sex and work and wanting and writing and writhing can get all fucked up, can get in the way, even if they could not exactly say what it was in the way of.” Other stories follow an experimental composer and a performance artist (presumably still Koki and Demented Panda) as they experience the parasitic effects of Western Civilization, the very civilization they contradict. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry” is pastiche crafted in the most deliberate way, taking Raymond Carver’s story and turning in what could have been an alternate draft written by Carver himself. At last, Demented Panda and Koki return to take another swing at their first collaboration that ended so disastrously, this time abandoning “…poems that narrated their pseudo-edgy sexual exploits in a way to suggest that such exploits were somehow in and of themselves political”. In the end they discover that art is created in the face of oppression, capitalism and horror because humanity will go mad without it.

Readers familiar with the art and history of the San Francisco Bay Area will recognize the work of Juliana Spahr and David Buuck as a uniquely Bay Area creation. An Army of Lovers can be evocative of another time when Merry Pranksters and Beats were the counterweights to an establishment run amok. Thankfully, Spahr and Buuck stay far away from the nostalgic. The darker side of the left coast, the part left out of the myth; homelessness, gentrification, and the long-standing presence of the military/industrial complex is ever-present in the narrative of An Army of Lovers. These are stories told with one foot in the Summer of Love and the other in the sewer.

An Army of Lovers is an exercise in criticism, not only of a world in which poetry has lost its power and purpose, but also of poetry and even art itself. An Army of Lovers thumbs its nose at the world of capitalistic consumerism and politics, but also at the high-mindedness of low artists. Demented Panda and Koki are introduced as “mediocre poets”, but while Spahr and Buuck may share aesthetic tastes with their characters, they don’t share their mediocrity. Spahr and Buuck have conducted their own experiments through these stories, much like Panda and Koki, and theirs is a resounding success. To step into the worlds created in An Army of Lovers takes more than just a casual commitment. Spahr and Buuck move from stream-of-consciousness surrealism to the economic and deliberate language of Carver in the time it takes to flip a page. Theirs are stories that demand reading chops. Meet them halfway and the reward is a narrative that seduces while throwing a brick through your window.





ddmiller_david_foster_wallace (1)DAVID FOSTER WALLACE RUINED MY SUICIDE, BY D.D MILLER
Wolsak and Wynn Publishers, 2014

246 pp.

Reviewed by Dan Keating

In the twelve stories in David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories, author D.D. Miller presents a kaleidoscope of modern life – from the eponymous story about a young man whose ennui-driven thoughts of suicide are wrecked when his idol, David Foster Wallace, commits suicide first, to a deadbeat dad fighting more against the realization that he’s a deadbeat dad than against being one, Miller’s stories cut through to the core of what’s wrong in the lives of his characters.

Several themes recur throughout. The people least likely to know whether their relationships are falling apart are the characters themselves as Miller deftly demonstrates just how singular people in relationships still are. Men in unhappy, dreary marriages fixate on their own perceptions of the sexualized details of other women. Fathers can’t figure out how to talk to sons, or at any rate can’t do it well. And, at the end of the day, the most appealing thing in the world is an ice cold beer; whether that ice cold beer helps to perpetuate the problems of the characters or whether it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things is up for grabs.

Miller often focuses more on what isn’t said than on what is. For example, from “The Illusion of Flight:”

He hates it when she uses the word “dear.” It sounds unnatural and condescending. He wants to tell her she can take her Tupperware and shove it, and she can take back these shoes, too, or give them to some homeless person or just throw them in the trash for all he cares. “Nothing,” he finally says. “I’m just hot, that’s all.” (Miller 43)

This juxtaposition of what the character wishes to say with what the character actually says sets up similar issues in stories throughout the collection; albeit many of the characters from the rest of the collection don’t know as well as this one does what they really want to be saying.

Often the men in Miller’s stories take their social cues from pornography rather than common sense, as in “Fool’s Paradise” when the narrator, John, clumsily attempts to seduce his friend’s attractive fiancé:

She stands in front of me, and it is too much. Her body, hot, and glistening now with a sheen of sweat; her stomach and chest moving with excitement and fear and confusion. This is the part of the video where she is supposed to reach toward me, cup my groin and gasp at my erection, but Rosa just pulls away; I go to reach my free hand out to her but she flinches, so I pull back. (Miller 108)

The failure of men to connect with their partners through this stunted, wish-fulfillment perspective pervades several stories in the collection.

In a similar vein, the inability of fathers to communicate with their sons runs throughout several stories. The narrator of “DinosaurPorn.Com” comes straight out and says it: “He’s eighteen, just graduated from high school. What do we possibly have to say to one another?” (Miller 173) Meanwhile, the narrator of “The Kill-It-And-Fill-It Guy” reflects on his brother Everett’s horrible relationship with their father:

When he came home after his first year of university in Quebec with a boyfriend, Dad didn’t say anything to him. Instead he said some godawful things to my mom and told her that if those two didn’t leave he was going to grab his rifle and shoot them. He said this with them standing right there. (Miller 190)

In one way or another, the breakdown of communication is at the heart of most of these stories.

And then there’s the drinking. Alcohol plays a part in the majority of the stories and it can be seen in a variety of lights. In “Be Prepared,” a deadbeat dad’s drinking seems innocuous until it’s seen briefly through the eyes of the mother of his son. In “Fool’s Paradise,” it gives a lecherous man the false courage to make a poorly-advised move on his friend’s fiancé. In “The Tutor” it helps drive the bullying of the main character, a lonely nerd. Despite all the negatives inherent in those situations, that the characters are drunk is often seen as their sole refuge; that they’re drinking may make the situation worse, but it conversely makes the situation bearable – or more bearable, at any rate.

All in all, D.D. Miller weaves stories about deeply flawed characters who, on a basic level, don’t know how to handle themselves or the people around them; ultimately Miller’s characters are alone in their heads with the greatest strangers of all – themselves.





SaeedJones_Prelude-to-Bruise-357x535
PRELUDE TO BRUISE, BY SAEED JONES
Coffee House Press, 2014.
124 pp., Paperback.

Reviewed by DeShara Suggs-Joe

The place was Soho, and somehow I finagled a way off of work to run to Brooklyn to see Patricia Smith read at Greenlight Book Store. The place was packed but the vibe was right. The who’s who in poetry occupied the front row, and I occupied a pillar. Though I was there for Smith, it was Saeed Jones that almost made me fall off that pillar when he read, “History, According to Boy.”

There was something sensual about the reading but not in a loving way. Jones came to this reading with cake on his face, and refused to wipe it. That metaphor is a perfect description of Prelude to Bruise.

Though I have no relation to Jones, this book made me feel like family. I was in his house, and I lived on the other side of his closet where he also lived. His pain was instantly mine, but his courage was now mine too. His poetry is paint on a canvas that’s red, yellow, and all the colors that make up fire, and light.

“Up to my ankles in petals, the hanged gowns close in,
mother multiplied, more— there’re always more
corseted ghosts, red-silk bodies crowd
my mouth.”

Saeed Jones uses this book to expose the truth of what it means to be gay and black while living in a south where those things don’t mix. You feel the weight of his father and also the lightness of his mother. Jones sashays through this book without so much as getting his heels dirty. Yet this book leaves your body transformed in a way that poetry should.

His technique is very refined, and that’s what drew me in. He writes in motion of water and earth that makes the reader feel the rain in their own house. Jones is that last shot of vodka you know you don’t need because nothing good comes after it. He is that emotion. He is the honesty in you that you never want to show, but he does it with boldness. His action is fierce, and unapologetic. It’s a finger snap in Z formation like in “Thralldom 2.”

“Bluegrass, horsewhip, blue moon bruise, bruise.
All fours, steel bit, steel gag, work. Good hurt, hurts good, his
lap, smack.
Fishnets, lips pursed, knife wound—red. First pose, third pose,
head thrown
back. This way, that way, shit boy, slap.”

Though Jones evokes feelings of fierceness, he takes you to a place most don’t care to go. He touches the scabs still visible, and the ones that supposedly healed. He reminds us for every battle won there is still a war left to fight. Sometimes with our lovers, sometimes with our families, and sometimes with ourselves.

My favorite poem in the book is “The Blue Dress”. In this poem, blue not only represents the color of the dress but also the color of sorrow filtered water that is as violent as the trauma we try to drown. Jones shows us here though, sometimes the water is just too strong.

“Her blue dress is a silk train is a river
is water seeps into the cobblestone streets of my sleep, is still
raining
is monsoon brocade, is winter stars stitched into puddles
is good-bye in a flooded, antique rom, is good-bye in a room of
crystal bowls
and crystal cups, is the ring-ting-ring of water dripping from the
mouths”

In true coming of age fashion, we see the character grow from denial to sneaking into gay clubs. It’s the space between the two that takes you on a journey of self discovery and identity. It’s not meant to make you feel comfortable, rather challenge everything you knew to be palpable. It’s meant to break you down, but then build you back up.

As I was changed on that afternoon I heard Jones read in the overcrowded book store in Brooklyn, I was changed after I read this book. He managed to activate all five of my senses. He managed to make me feel naked, unsanctified even. He managed to inspire me to write some of my best poetry thereafter.