Review of Laurel Blossom’s Longevity

by Miriam Kotzin

Laurel Blossom.  Longevity.  New York, New York: Four Way Books.  2015.  pp.72.

Laurel Blossom’s narrative prose poem, Longevity, is a stunner, one of the important book-length poems of the 21st century. Themes intertwine: family, friendship, loss, and memory. When the narrator of the poem says, “Everything is elegy,” the statement is both an observation and a guide to the reader, as the narrator provides a key to the poem: “Where it says she, it means Margaret or Lucy or my poor mother. /Where it says she, it means said. It means dead.”

Memory is not simply film: it is fragile, “brittle,” in danger of snapping: “My whole life flashing. Brittle, bitter frames of film run backwards.”   The words “brittle” and “bitter” are yoked by sound; one informs the other. The metaphor of a past remembered, re-experienced, is “like clacking film.”  The figure continues:  “Memory catches on the sprockets of grief.”  The narrator grieves her friend, her sister, and her mother—yet the poem is filled with light and bright colors, flowers. 

Memorable, original images offer pleasure through their economy, their musicality, and their startling ability to revise the world: “Raindrops hanging on the laundry line to dry” and “Orange shift shimmering in  sleeveless  breeze.” The genius resides, in part, in departures from the expected:  the shift shimmers not in the sunlight, but in the breeze; it is not the shift that is sleeveless, but the breeze.

A similar effect occurs in the images of the destruction of the World Trade Center that haunt Longevity.  The post 9/11 World Trade Center lies in rubble; the iconic image of the uplifted grid becomes “Charred ruins like bones of a great cathedral, arches like hands in smoldering prayer.”  The book begins with a prologue, the first line, mysterious only when we first read it—on second reading, we recognize that this is Margaret falling from the World Trade Center:  “Now when she falls, she falls up, on blue, unfolded wings.” As Lucy dies of cancer, she has a “failing falling body.”  And the mother’s death?  It’s unknown which came first, her fall from a balcony—or a heart attack.  The body is “ephemeral” in Longevity.

Blossom’s Longevity is a remarkable book, indisputable evidence that prose poetry, too, will make you “feel physically as if the top of [your] head were taken off.”

Review of Daniel Mark Epstein’s Dawn to Twilight: New and Selected Poems

by Miriam Kotzin

Daniel Mark Epstein. Dawn to Twilight:  New and Selected Poems. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA, 2015.  157 pp.

The arrival of a volume of new and selected poems by an accomplished poet is a much-anticipated event, as was Daniel Mark Epstein’s Dawn to Twilight, which rewards the reader from the early poems through the most recent, confirming that Epstein is a superb poet and translator. 

The poems in this volume span nearly five decades of insightful observations and explorations, an extraordinary, skilled use of language.  Do you read a book of poems, browsing here and there, choosing poems first by title?  Or, with a volume of collected or selected poems, do you read with some discipline from back to front—or the reverse?  In the first of a series of helpful notes Epstein says that his “longer narrative and dramatic” poems from earlier books have been omitted here; instead, he included lyric poems “in roughly chronological order [to] see if those poems would tell a story on their own….I was surprised by the extent to which these shorter poems, irregularly autobiographical, now emerge as a unified autobiography.”

Even without the extra level of interest, the poetry offers uncommon pleasure in poems in a wide range of subjects: those that invite the autobiographical reading (“The Code,” “For a Child Frightened by Lightning,” “Schoolhouses,”  “The Book of Matches,” “Heading Home,” “The Music Lesson,” “My Desk,” “Dawn to Twilight”); those that are inspired by art or other writers (“Russian Village Suite” after Marc Chagall, “Homage to Mallarmé,” “After Whitman’s Lincoln Speech”); portraits and character studies (“The Secret,” “Miss Ellie’s 78th Spring Party,”  “The Follies,” “Cash Only, No Refund, No Return,” “Beauty and the Beast”); or poems about the natural world (“The American White Pelican,”  “Cygnus Musicus,” “Bobolink,” “The Vanishing Oriole,” “The Comb Bearers,” “Fireflies”).  

Taking obvious delight in its exaggerations, the daring “Night Medallion,” with its phallic “Eager candle,” goes way beyond Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”).
“My woman is sharper than new truth,
            a clean bullet hole in glass.
Winter cuts its teeth on her, the sun
            cuts its hand on her,
she’s too hot for the beach, the golden sand
            goes all to white crystal under her.

She’s so proud, the full moon is her mirror.

What is the greater compliment, that a poet write a poem to express his great love and his being overwhelmed by his beloved’s beauty—or for him to be unable speechless?  In “The Glass,” he writes that the woman

            “with all the tricks of nature to multiply
            leaf upon leaf and heartbeat upon beat
            has come to live in my mind as if
            the world were not wide enough to hold her beauty.”
            “When she walks into the room something must break,
            mind’s image meets her coming with such force.
            My glass is shattered and I cannot speak.”

The musicality of these lines is enviable: the beautiful assonance, for example, in the last line.

“A Book of Matches” is an extended metaphor of a marriage ending—as the speaker sets the house on fire; the poem opens with the answer to a question as yet unasked: why?—  “Because I could not stay with her forever…”   The flames climb from the basement to the upstairs:

            “Because I could not hold her long enough
            The fire wrapped our bed in a cruel curtain
            Where our bodies once shone making love

            And at last it burst into the children’s room
            Furious to find them gone, no longer children
            Any more than we are bride and groom.”

Who is the “The Lion Tamer at 2:00 A.M.”?  The poem begins with commentary on human nature: “The crowd is always on the lion’s side…” The poem develops with another observation, “Hard to survive this art, harder to please.”  Not only the lion tamer, this is the poet speaking, “How can I make a show with ten tame lions?”

There’s more than enough show in Dawn to Twilight.   Daniel Mark Epstein’s selection of lyric poetry in this book makes me want a second selected volume, this one with translations and longer poems.

Review of Robert Zaller’s Speaking to Power

by Miriam Kotzin

Robert Zaller. Speaking to Power. (Philadelphia PA: The Moonstone Press, 2015).  77pp.

Robert Zaller’s Speaking to Power is an impressive collection of superb poetry that evinces the author’s wide-ranging knowledge and indicates a passion for justice.  Zaller’s erudition joins his imagination in writing poems that are responses to literature and philosophy:  not fan fiction (or fan poetry) but daring explorations, expansions.

In Speaking to Power, Herbert, Mayakovsky, Parra, Shakespeare (Hamlet, Julius Caesar), Sophocles, Goya, Giacometti, de Saussure, Voltaire, and their works are subjects for poems, as are a number of historical and Biblical figures. Zaller is a master of the dramatic poem; moreover these poems are unflinching as they confront cruelty.

This is not to say that the poems are grim—far otherwise.  “The Last Citizen” speaks as a poet  “…toiling from word to word / like a miner without a lamp, chipping away  / in my darkness at the imaginary / rockface of the world.”

The book’s opening poem, “Simple Answers,” sets the tone for what follows:  “The simple answers lie before us / with the rectitude of keys / for which all doorways have vanished.” 

This is followed by a response to the poem by Zbigniew Herbert, “Herbert’s Pebble.”  Zaller’s narrator, like the narrator Herbert’s poem, holds a pebble in his hand, “the furnace of [his] palm,” an action echoed by Claudius in Zaller’s “Claudius’s Prayer,” one of a series of Hamlet poems. In the play, Claudius kneels but cannot pray; Shakespeare’s scene ends with the couplet, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”  Zaller’s poem ends with a similar statement, even though the title tantalizes the reader with the possibility of the prayer’s words.  It takes a spine of steel to write something that calls upon the reader to compare a passage with Shakespeare’s. Zaller’s poem holds up to the scrutiny:

         “No thought or prayer
         can comfort like cold stone
         weighed in the palm
         of one’s hand.
         Yet stone, too, is fire-born
         and fire, as is known,
         lives the death of air
         through which thought and prayer
         likewise flow.
         So one can hold nothing then
         that has not come
         and will not go
         no more than pulse of wren
         that strains at flight
         and never goes?…”

All too often political poems are more polemics than poetry—not so these admirable poems. When they are responses to other work, their excellence invites re-reading the source and then returning to Speaking to Power. Robert Zaller’s latest collection is certain to be read with appreciation for its insight, its sensitive use of figures of speech, and its command of cultural history.

Review of Lee Slonimsky’s Pythagore, Amoureux, Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets (translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman)

by Licia Hahn

A Review of Pythagore, Amoureux, Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets by Lee Slonimsky; French translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman, 2015, Folded Word

Pythagore, Amoureux – Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets by Lee Slonimsky with a French translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman, is a remarkable act of translation, recreation, and a noteworthy collaboration of poets.

Much like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, Slonimsky’s vocation (as an investment executive) informs his poetry. The central persona of Pythagoras is the poet’s alter ego; he, like Slonimsky, was schooled in mathematics.

“Pythagoras, for one, values his name:
he’s faithful always to what math proclaims”

“Marriage Vows”, Pythagore Amoureux, p. 96

Pythagoras was also philosopher and poet. The protagonist Pythagoras takes us on a philosophical quest to understand the elusive mysteries of nature, love and the divine through numbers.

“he longs to make a perfect, mystic sense
of all the numbers earth and mind allow.”

“Watching Day and Night”, Pythagore, Amoureux, p.6

The central tenant of the Pythagoreans was that nature and the cosmos could be best comprehended through mathematics. The poet’s examinations of birds and how sunlight “bisects” a tree, brings a new, elegant, and moving appreciation for this ancient philosophy.

Music was the spark for the Pythagoreans’ philosophical insight. They realized that the structure of musical harmonies was mathematical; they used the language of numbers to explain the universe and nature. Life, nature, and the cosmos were governed by a set of organizing principles—some may call it God.

“…The sun is teaching math, this cool May day,
to every leaf and branch that understands
geometry, the gospel of its rays
this is the only meaning he can find.
Each arrowed ray to earth’s a perfect sign
For angle, number shown to trees and man.”

“Teacher in the Woods”, Pythagore, Amoureux, p.40

As Coleman recounted in an interview, “It was just an intuitive thing.  I really liked the book and the idea of it existing in French. And I fell in love with that first poem in the book.” After translating “The Last Digit of Pi”, the first poem in Slonimsky’s Pythagoras in Love, 2007, Orchises Press, Coleman was hooked.

Coleman’s watercolor “Mediterranean Sea”, graces the cover of the collection. With her diverse creative talents, she amplifies the meaning, sound and experience of Slonimsky’s poems. Her versatility as a poet, musician and artist are always in evidence. The beauty and lyricism of the French language burnishes the text, enriching the reader’s journey into the senses, nature, and the mysteries of life.

Coleman achieves her masterful translation by avoiding the constraints of the sonnet form or a narrow translation. She honors Slonimsky in maintaining the spirit and intent of his work. In the “Loneliness of Exile/La Solitude de L’Exil”, p.76, Coleman takes appropriate liberties to retain the poem’s rhythms and meaning.

“The sky and water have a love affair
At dawn covertly, so the woods won’t know”

“Le ciel et l’eau sont amants
A l’aube, scretement, pour que ces bois l’ignornent”’
Le ciel et l’eau sont amants
à l’aube, secrètement, pour que ces bois l’ignorent,

To translate the translator, Coleman’s French version translated literally back to the English reads:

 “The sky and water are lovers
At dawn, secretly, so that these woods ignore them.”

Her translations frequently gift the reader with rhymes that arise organically and harmoniously.  In “Philosopher in Love/ Le Philosophe, Amoureux”, p.26,  “Un est/le plus parfait” or “rayonnment/brulant” are good examples from the verses below:

“…for him eternity’s in numbers: One
the more perfect, like his great love, bequeaths
a universe benevolent and full
of radiance beyond the physical,
alongside eyes as bright as molten sun.”

 “….pour lui les nombres cachent l’éternité: Un est
le plus parfait, comme son grand amour, lègue
un univers bienveillant et plein de rayonnement
audelà du monde physique,
à côté des yeux aussi clairs qu’un soleil brûlant. ”

The musicality of the French language supersedes the constraints of the poems’ original sonnet form. Much as Slonimsky’s exacting choice of words and the sonnet structure bring us to deep reflection, Coleman’s translation meets the challenge of striking the right balance between structure and autonomy.  She is unfettered in her masterful use of the sound patterns of French language to capture the essence of the poem’s meaning.

The collection can be especially enjoyed as an act of immersion; each poem urges the reader to the next. The refrains of sun, birds, leaves, and ponds and the mathematical structures of geometry, angles, and circles—“sun-math of sharp ray angles” (“Lecturer in the Mirror”, p.52) call the reader to contemplate the central themes again and again. The body of work speaks to nature as man’s instructor, and math as nature’s translator.

“The Crow’s Point of View” p.20, illustrates the poet’s virtuosity in capturing nature as man’s “new academy”:

“And yet, when air is still, the water gleams
With trapezoids and ellipses; sunbeams
Seem shining summaries of all the ways
To measure surfaces. Dangling oak leaves
and pond instruct him well in ray-seamed math:
his new academy, a wooded path”

Coleman pays homage to form with a rhyming couplet at the end. “His new academy” becomes “une nouvelle lecon”– a new lesson to rhyme with “rayons”.

“Les feuilles frémissantes de chênes et l’etang lui enseigne bien
les mathématiques cousues de rayons;
dans le sentier de bois, une nouvelle leçon.”

This poem perfectly typifies the recurrent juxtaposition of geometry and nature.

“a loud crow lectures oak leaves just beyond
his line of sight on how a dappled breeze
confuses light. And yes, he must agree
that shadows lie, that rippling branches tease
false theorems from the axes of sun’s rays.”

Coleman artfully strings “corbeau”, “forte”,  “Pythagore” and “Il est d’accord” to connect in a beautiful alignment of sound and rhyme. 

“un corbeau de voix forte que Pythagore ne voit qu’à peine
enseigne aux feuilles de chêne comment une brise tachetée
embrouille la lumière. Il est d’accord:
les ombres sont menteuses, et les branches onduleuses
tirent des théorèmes faux des rayons de soleil."

The poet wanders along his wooded path; poem follows poem like a flock of birds, beckoning the reader to some distant destination. The timeless themes and spare elegance of Slonimsky’s poetry and Coleman’s beautiful translation resonate long after each reading. Slonimsky’s marvelous collection of poems takes us on a transformative journey and we emerge having touched the divine. 

Review of Carol Lipszyc’s The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories

by Paul D. Green

Toronto, Canada: Inanna Publications and Education, Inc., 2014.185 pp.

Why, one might ask, is there a need for yet another book on the Holocaust? That’s a fair question. Here are two valid responses. (I’m sure the interested reader can come up with many more.) First of all, many of the remaining Holocaust survivors are in their eighties or nineties, and there is a serious need for valid texts to tell and retell the stories of those who suffered such unimaginable horrors—especially since they will no doubt be gone soon.

Second, it is well known that Holocaust denial has been on the increase for the last few years, and it is important to refute the cruel and insensitive lies of those who claim that the atrocities of the Holocaust, including the murder of 6,000,000 Jews and 5,000,000 others, have been greatly exaggerated or are mere fabrications.

The book under review, The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories by Carol Lipszyc, a collection of stories about the Holocaust, is a fine piece of literature and, like most good literature, has its own inherent value. It not only fulfills the double function mentioned above of keeping alive the stories of survivors and reminding us of the brutality in Nazi-controlled Europe, but its memorable characters, gripping events, and simple but often beautiful language have a major impact on the reader.

The major protagonists are child survivors, including adolescents, and as the author notes, many of the stories are based on real-life incidents, including some that are influenced by occurrences to her own parents. (Lipszyc is the daughter of two child survivors.) Thus a number of the stories are inextricable combinations of history and fiction.

Through the perspective of children and young adults we experience life under the Nazis. Not surprisingly, many of the children are separated from their parents, some through parental death (primarily by means of starvation, disease, or executions by sadistic storm troopers) or the unexpected appearance of Righteous Gentiles asked by desperate Jewish parents to become, at the risk to their lives, surrogate parentsto unsuspecting children. In one of the stories, “City of Dreams,” two brothers, Ernest, the older, and Peter, the younger, become part of a kindertransport from Vienna, by which trainloads of children travel to Holland and then, by boat, to England to be adopted by English couples. The two boys realize they will probably never see their parents again.

This collection of enlightening stories makes us aware that even in the most traumatic circumstances children like to play games. In their play-acting they often make fun of political leaders, as they do in one of these stories. In “City of Dreams,” after the children have arrived in England, “some of the older boys…caricature Hitler, the way he thrusts his chest forward when he rails at the world and wheels his arm up and down like a mad crosswalk guard.” And when they get tired of mocking Hitler, they “move to Goebbel’s bad leg.”

There is a somewhat different mood in “The Elder of the Jews,” which takes place in the Lodz Ghetto, with boys on the street playing at being soldiers. Then one of the older boys, 13-year-old Lipa,offers to “play the part of Chaim Rumkowski, Chairman and head of the Lodz Ghetto” (who is the “Elder of the Jews” in the title of the story). Lipa plays his part so well that, in a fascinating instance of child psychology, the game turns real for the other boys, and they begin urging Lipa for more food and medications for family members. The scene is a reminder of the less-than-ideal conditions in the ghetto. The illusion created by Lipa is dispelled only when a woman shouts at the boys from her window, reminding them about violations of curfew, and suddenly other parents show up in the street to get their sons to go home.

Righteous Gentiles function in these stories, as they did in real life, not only as adoptive parents but also as unofficial child protectors. In the title story, “The Saviour Shoes,” an unnamed homeless boy, who lost his mother and younger sister in a massacre at the ghetto of Mir Radziwill Castle (his father had died probably from tuberculosis or some other lung disease), seeks help from a Polish farmer.

The farmer, who has a wife and three daughters, initially tells him, “I cannot open my home to you,” but overcome by a “curious and disquieting compassion, a flutter of the heart, like a bird’s wing on the eaves of his shed,” he changes his mind, helps the boy builda protective bunker, “inserting a metal pipe in the dirt for the boy to breathe through” in bad weather, allows him to use his shed in warmer weather, and “once every few weeks…left him cooked potatoes, cabbage or carrots in the pig stalls.”He also warns him when German soldiers are about to conduct “an imminent manhunt in the forest.” Without the farmer’s assistance, the boy would almost certainly not have survived.

Another example of the benevolent influence of a Righteous Gentile is “Homage to an Ordinary Man,” where 16-year-old Yitzchak is one of “300 young men from the Polish town of Staszow” ordered to the work camp at Skarzysko-Kamienna. Not long after arriving, Yitzchak volunteers for a work detail requiring twelve young men to “handle highly explosive material.”The meister, or head of the work detail, Weisleder, has an undeserved reputationas a “cruel beast” who will surely “kill them” [i.e., his workers] within the week,” but instead turns out to be a compassionate man, which Yitzchak and some of the others recognize from the kindly way he looks at them. He provides them with real soup—“not the sweet watery soup [i.e., the kind served to other Jewish prisoners], but the soup with carrots, onions, potatoes, turnips.”

Weisleder’s ultimate act of salvation is to hide his twelve men during the process of liquidating the camp:

While approximately forty percent of the prisoners were being shot, he ushered the twelve into an ammunition factory. … There on the oil-stained floors, Weisleder slept with his disciples[emphasis mine] and brought them food.

Eventually Yitzchak survives even a journey to Buchenwald concentration camp, and he survives the war itself, but without the protection of this Righteous Gentile survival would have been unlikely. The good-hearted Weisleder seems to me to be a version of Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist who saves more than a thousand Jewish prisoners from extermination. Weisleder saves only twelve, but 12 is a highly symbolic number. (There is a fair amount of symbolism all throughout these tales.) The number 12 may perhaps refer to the twelve tribes of ancient Israel and/or to Christ and his 12 disciples. (See above reference to Weisleder sleeping with his “disciples.”)

In some ways the most unusual tales in Lipszyc’s collection are“A Question of Gender” and “A Jewish Interrogation.” Both stories are about attempts to conceal the respective child-protagonists’ identities. In the first case a little boy, Reuben Feldstein, is taken in by another Righteous Gentile, Stanislawa Pacek, who protects her charge by insisting he dress as a little girl. The gender change is to ensure protection against an inspection of his genitals; the Nazis were able to pinpoint Jews from non-Jews by checking for circumcision. Thus little Rubinko (Stanislawa’s designation for the little boy) becomes Janka, a little girl, and in the process undergoes not merely a gender change but also a religious “conversion.” (Stanislawa takes him, dressed as a girl, to the church to which she belongs.) Their separation after several years is painful for both; they are so close that he refers to her as “Mamusia”(‘Mother’). When his aunt, the only relative to survive the war, comes for him, she tells Stanislawa that she intends to take her nephew to Palestine.

In “A Jewish Interrogation” a 16-year-old girl who has posed as a Christian during the war must come to terms with her Jewish faith and prove to a group of religious Jews on a train that she is Jewish. The problem is that during the war a German boy calls her and her aunt Polish pigs, and she angrily responds in Yiddish that she will “punch his teeth out.” The realization that she has put herself and her aunt in danger by speaking Yiddish creates in her a form of partial amnesia: “That evening and for the rest of the war, I could not retrieve a spoken word of Yiddish.” Consequently, she cannot respond in Yiddish (only in Polish) to her Jewish interrogators. Even though she can answer their questions about Passover and other Jewish holidays, they nonetheless doubt that she is truly Jewish. Like the aunt of Rubinko/Janka, she dreams of “embarking on a boat to Palestine” to renew her Jewish faith.

A brief review such as this one cannot do justice to the complexity of themes, characterization, tone, and imagery and other stylistic devices of this extraordinary collection, not to mention the high-powered emotional impact the stories have on the reader. For example, consider this poignant passage on homeless children in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto for its power:

In the dark, against the curfew, the voices of abandoned children drifted up like smoke and charred the windows as they moaned for alms, for bread, for a place to sleep. The morning found them ready for burial, frozen on streets or on the steps of dilapidated houses, without shoes, in ragged clothes.(“The Deathwatcher”)

Anyone interested in the subject of the Holocaust should purchase a copy of this wonderful book as soon as possible.

Poet, Guitarist, Painter: a Review of Elizabeth J. Coleman’s Fifth Generation

by Lee Slonimsky

Elizabeth J. Coleman. The Fifth Generation.  New York, NY.  Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016. 88 pages.

In Elizabeth J. Coleman’s dynamic new collection The Fifth Generation, the author’s spiritual perspective merges with a musical ear and an unerring gift for language to create a highly fulfilling experience for the reader.  And let us not leave out the vivid imagery present in these poems.  The author, a talented painter as well as guitarist (her compelling work graces the front cover), and poet, brings together all her gifts in this 88 page masterpiece.

At a time when American poetry is fragmented into various “schools” within the greater schism between free and formal verse, an underlying theme of acceptance in Coleman’s work is not only refreshingly harmonious, but also a welcome antidote to the narrowness that abounds generally in our culture.  In addition, her sense of the largeness of time, and the perspective it brings, is breathtaking.  A poem early in the book (“On Trying to Tell My Husband Something Important While He Stares at the New York Times on His I-Pad”) includes one of the most memorable lines in the entire collection:

“until only the wind remembers/

And this superb poem does a wonderful job of contrasting the temporal and the immortal, “ancient mountain passes” in line one dexterously highlighting the references to recent and much more recent technology in the title (the newspaper, not as old as we think, and the i-pad).  This 15 line gem has to be read in its entirety to be totally appreciated, but it is a wonderful reflection on the transitoriness of our daily concerns compared to the wind and to the foreverness of a hummingbird.

Personal experience—and the poet has had a lot of diverse ones—and the passage of time join evocatively in a poem like “In the Farmhouse,” with its awesome concluding lines:

“their eyes that glorious
forget-me-not blue that grows riotously on a farm.”

There is no proselytizing in these deeply spiritual poems, instead a powerful reverence for the dramatic history of our physical world which can bring its own kind of solace to challenges like aging and mortality.  Just a few examples:

“Gorillas stay up all night to groom their dead,” (“One Way of Looking at Grace”)
“We come from [the sea]”, (“A Church Funeral”)
“the ancient fish they’ve discovered/that’s sensitive to electricity” (“Belief”)

Quoted above are three slivers of the poet’s vast tree of knowledge, three slivers that emphasize a unity of life well beyond the obvious, the sort of insight that poets have traditionally been cherished for providing.  Coleman’s stunning first collection Proof (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) is even more emphatically “proved” in The Fifth Generation’s display of insight into humanity and nature alike, and the many daily moments in which strangers touch and different people share, moments that will rarely if ever get in a newspaper or onto the news feed of an iphone, but that are the deepest news of life on earth, so many millennia long.

brief disclaimer:  two of my own sonnets appear in this collection, alongside translations by the author

Review of Sarah Kennedy’s The King’s Sisters

by Courtney Watson

Sarah Kennedy. The King's Sisters. Knox Robinson Publishing: Atlanta. 320 pages. 2015.

The King’s Sisters, the third novel in Sarah Kennedy’s standout The Cross and the Crown series, is a beautifully-written story that engages the reader from the first page to the last. This novel is a vibrant work of historical fiction that teems with urgency and suspense amidst a world of 16th treachery and palace intrigue. With vivid sensory descriptions and expert plotting, Kennedy continues to weave a story that offers compelling insight into the political minefield that characterized life during Henry VIII’s reign.

As with its predecessors, the best part of The King’s Sisters is Kennedy’s nuanced portrayal of the women in her story. Beyond her heroine, the determined and intuitive Catherine Overton, the female characters in this novel are well-explored and fully-realized. There are no one-note characters lingering in these pages. Every woman is well-developed with a complex backstory that brings her to life. Kennedy’s portrayal of women in this era is thoughtful and extraordinarily well-done; though they suffer, they are not limited to being bloody footnotes from Henry VIII’s rampage through history. In Kennedy’s gifted hands, they are complicated and compelling, and they matter. Though the author accomplishes many feats in this novel, perhaps the most moving is her exploration of the depths of female friendship.

During this third journey with Catherine Overton, whose life has changed so much since her days as a nun at the Mt. Grace Priory, readers are invited into the fraught world of the court of Henry VIII. At this point history, in the days after fifth wife Catherine Howard’s grisly execution, proximity to the cruel and temperamental king is the most dangerous place in England as Henry VIII’s insanity and suspicion grow:“The queen was a child…He has murdered a little girl this time,” (7). Fear is palpable in these early scenes, and it becomes more pronounced as the novel progresses. From her place at Richmond Palace, where she serves Henry’s divorced and displaced fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (a tremendously well-written character in her own right), Catherine has a front row seat to one of the most turbulent and violent periods of English history.

The king’s madness is perhaps felt most acutely in the opening scene of the novel, where the reader rejoins Catherine Overton as she stands in the crowd watching the young queen’s brutal decapitation. It is a difficult, wrenching scene, punctuated by Catherine’s fear of her own scandalous transgression of being unwed and pregnant. The mood at the palace is dark and grim: “…all the reveling, the feasts and dancing, the flirtations and love-making, had ended, and the king disappeared into the inner rooms of Hampton Court after he signed the death warrant” (1). For Catherine, the stakes have never been higher; her world is full of peril, and she has never had more to lose.

One of the brightest parts of the novel is Kennedy’s characterization of the future Queen Elizabeth I as a child. Since so much is known about the extraordinary woman she became, it is easy to forget that, as the only child of the beheaded Anne Boleyn, she was an unlikely heir and her path to the throne was laden with peril. Kennedy does wonderful work illustrating for the reader the young princess’s awareness of the precariousness of her position:

When my brother is king, I will do as he says, and he will love me. Is that the way I must go to keep my head from being taken from my neck?…I will suffer his kindness and his direction and perhaps he will repay me with my life. I see how things stand. But if he seeks to marry me to some low-born idiot, I will cut my own throat before I submit. Do you hear? I will slash it myself! I will not have my head hacked off by a drunkard with an ax! (14-15).

Kennedy’s version of Princess Elizabeth is brightly lit and crackling with intelligence, lending vital insight into how the violent deaths of two of her father’s wives—one of them her own mother—would shape the marital views of the future Virgin Queen. Even as a child, her presence is commanding, a powerful portent of the future she will create.

Elizabeth I is by no means the only historical figure to make a lasting impression in The King’s Sisters. Catherine serves a vividly-imagined Anne of Cleves, who fell out of favor with Henry VIII shortly after their marriage but who survived through divorce, unlike her successor, and continued to love him. Kennedy does a beautiful job portraying the often-misunderstood Anne of Cleves with pathos and humor, creating a character who is both intelligent and surprising. The same can be said with the dark and bewitching Mary Tudor, who goes to great lengths to keep practicing her Catholic faith right under her father’s nose.

Another interesting character is Lady Jane Dudley, who serves as the head of Anne of Cleves’ household at Richmond Palace. The events of the novel play out a few short years before Jane Dudley’s moment in history, when her husband, the Duke of Northumberland, and her favorite son, Guildford Dudley, made a disastrous attempt to displace Mary Tudor from the throne in favor of Lady Jane Grey. Though the political maneuver resulted in the executions of both her son and her husband, Jane Dudley guided the rest of her family through the scandal relatively unscathed. Another of her sons, Robert Dudley, went down in history as the famed Earl of Leicester, beloved by the Virgin Queen. There are many references throughout the novel to future events, and it is fascinating to watch so many key figures in the early stages of their development. Jane Dudley, for all of her hysteria, is also canny and shrewd, characteristics she will desperately need to weather the coming storm.

Along with the main characters of the novel, the plot is tightly-written and has momentum from the first page. This entry in the series fully-immerses readers in a familiar world, and it is exciting to revisit locations from the first two novels as well as new places. From palaces to dungeons, there is a lot to experience in The King’s Sisters, which rewards the reader with intricate and lush sensory descriptions of Catherine’s world: “The table was covered with roast ducks and platters of carrots and leeks. Loaves of white bread and jugs of ale. Catherine took the edge of a bench and a manservant filled her cup. She sloshed the ale around until the colors of the candles, swimming in its golden surface, loosened her mind and she could swallow” (207-208). The novel, a true feast for the senses, is brimming with evocative descriptions of 16th century England.

While there is so much to praise about The King’s Sister’s, the best part of the novel is watching Catherine’s determined struggle for agency and autonomy during a time period when women generally possessed neither: “Martin coughed out a laugh. ‘The name of a woman is nobody,’ he said. ‘The name of a woman signifies the master to whom she belongs and nothing more. The name of a woman is a hole into which a man must drop his meaning and his seed. A woman makes nothing happen’” (275). What makes Catherine Overton an extraordinary character—and such a thrilling heroine to follow along her journey—is that she clearly understood the truth for women in her world, and she refused to accept it as her fate. She saw the possibility of a different future for herself and her daughter and her friends, and from there she rebuilt her world. Inspiring, smart, beautiful, and harrowing, The King’s Sisters is a must-read.

Review of Richard Burgin’s Don’t Think

by Miriam Kotzin

Richard Burgin.  Don’t Think. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2016.  184 pp.

Richard Burgin's Don’t Think is a superb book, a remarkable addition to his substantial, impressive oeuvre. The dark, sometimes bizarre, sensibility of his earlier work that once made Joyce Carol Oates compare him to Poe, remains, but it is joined in this volume with a more hopeful side.  Together these joined forces make Burgin one of best and most eloquent writers of the American short story.

Like his earlier writing, this collection of stories is both accessible as well as profound—and more than occasionally funny. Burgin’s ninth collection of short stories returns to his life-long exploration of memory’s power to comfort or torture, its role in creating identity, and its slippery relation to the truth.  

The eponymous “Don’t Think” naturally uses the second person, and by naming what must not be thought of, creates it. The ruminations and reminiscing, the regrets and recriminations take place as the protagonist talks to himself while he waits for his son to arrive for his shared custody time with him. The opening line is nostalgic and idyllic, “Don’t think of the roses on the trellis overhead—you motoring through, captain of your tricycle…” The story is filled with the losses of a life intensely lived. The love of his son outweighs all the negatives in his life, and much of the story is devoted to the habits of the protagonist’s son, and their custom of telling stories together, stories that are never written down.

As for stories that are written down:  “Don’t think of literature, the most pathetic of all religions, with its church of art that enforces the belief that great art will endure forever. Don’t think of how we constantly misuse words like ‘forever’ without grasping their meaning. We could not bear it if we did. And avoid the thought that if the world ends we’ll lose everything in art including Shakespeare and Beethoven but if the world goes on forever they’ll be lost and forgotten as well.”

In “Of Course He Wanted To Be Remembered,” two young women, talk about their professor, with whom each has had an intense relationship and discuss his theories: “‘your memory is your fiction’ “ and “ ‘memory has no objective basis in reality’ ” and “ ‘Personal memory is the first casualty of infinity. Cultural memory is the second’.”

The power of memory is one of the themes in “Uncle Ray.” The protagonist chooses a vacation destination taking into account his memories.  Visiting his parents would mean possibly being “ambushed not only by a possible fight in the present but by any one of a number of lurking, only temporarily hidden memories that could suddenly appear and shock you, as if your memory were playing hide-and- seek with you.” He chose a place based on his belief that going there will mean being surrounded by only pleasant memories, but, when he’s on the raft in the lake, discovers, instead, a negative memory of a sexual ambush by “Uncle” Ray, who had propositioned him when he was a “young thirteen.” The reader may remember Little Red Riding Hood’ comment to the wolf, “What big teeth you have!” as “Uncle” Ray, whose self-presentation was genial and, avuncular  “had a fairly toothy smile, too; his front teeth were often visible…” 

The protagonist of “Don’t Think” says, “It’s a good thing we have so many aches and pains as we get older or it would be too difficult to face the end. It’s selfish, in a way, to love a world where there is so much suffering.”

These stories celebrate the redemption offered by even the smallest kind gesture, such as found in the close of “Of Course He Wanted To Be Remembered,” in which a dying professor opens “his umbrella and sheltered [a young woman] from the rain.”

Over the years, Burgin has written about a number of imaginary societies, among them are:  The Identity Club, Memo, Oblivion, The Global Justice Society, and, here. V.I.N.—Victims of Infinity and Nothingness: “We see a little bit of infinity and then we become a permanent part of nothingness…” 

Connect this thought with what the protagonist of “Don’t Think” says, having first  “beg[u]n thinking about infinity and the limits of consciousness” when he realized he’d never become a composer. “It’s deeply ironic how people believe art expands consciousness and therefore life when it actually does the opposite. Anything with a design, with a beginning, middle, and end, is in opposition to infinity (or reality) and therefore is purposely a lie and a colossal deception.”

Two of the nine stories in Don’t Think were published in Per Contra: “The Chill,”[] and “Olympia.” []

Don’t Think is another first-rate book on the shelf devoted to Richard Burgin’s writing: works that have won him a reputation for masterful, darkly comic forays into contemporary angst and the human condition, ameliorated by acts of kindness and honest love. His is an extraordinary, invaluable voice in contemporary fiction.