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Staff Picks 2011

Spare Parts

Monica Storss recommends

Spare Parts and Dismemberment by Josh Fernandez

Josh Fernandez gets a lot of hate mail. As a journalist, it is par for the course. What is more terrifying in America today than the voice of a male Mexican tattooed ex-junkie son-of-a-schizo who has a voice? Who makes honest, raw, utterly exposed observations about the world around him, without censor? Who, (even scarier) ultimately, can make something beautiful out of it all? Spare Parts and Dismemberment is Fernandez’s first book of poems. Unlike many first books, which read like a greatest-hits-of-grad-school mix tape, Spare Parts and Dismemberment reads like a literary plain-speak sucker punch. The poems do not hide behind devices. The language is precise and direct. No jive, no gimmicks. The line breaks are perfectly executed, and Fernandez is a master storyteller. Because of this, there is nowhere for the subject matter to hide. I could refer to things like male rape, institutionalization, the Mexican-American experience, substance abuse, mental illness. But it’s not about that. The magic of Fernandez’s poetics is transcendence. Each poem in Spare Parts is a love poem to the darkest and the lightest of human capability. There are so many kinds of horror and so many kinds of love in these poems. From the impossibly perfect way to start a marriage in “The Wedding” to the spectre of father in “The Last Thing He Said,” they will remind the reader that beauty and destruction are binaries. The poems will scare you, in a good way. They will scream at you, and say the hushed 3:00 AM crazy thoughts you have. But they also speak to the love redemptive, the random encounters that can bring you back. The poems take the reader to where we all fear to tread – both the darkest, feral places, and the illuminated love-light that wakes us. It is the haze of the drug den through the church’s stained glass across the street from the Apple© Store that one got curb stomped in front of ten years ago when Abuelita was making tortillas down the way. It is outstanding lyrical narrative that tells it like it is, and even when it is difficult to hear, we want to hear more.

 

  June 2011

Strange Bedfellows

Kimmianne Webster recommends

Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words by Howard Richler

The title "STRANGE BEDFELLOWS" comes from Richler's assertion that words have been 'sleeping around' with other languages and meanings, leaving them with scandalous past social lives that this book attempts to uncover. STRANGE BEDFELLOWS is like a guide to only the most salacious and surprising entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. It starts off with a bang with "Ten Words You Never Knew Came From Unmentionable Body Parts" (including "vanilla", "porcelain", and "testify"). Although it does give away the juiciest stuff in the first chapter, it stays compelling and ends strong with "Fifty-Five Words Whose Pedigree Will Delight And Amuse You", which does not fail to delight and amuse. Richler saves you the trouble of thumbing through the 22,000-page OED, and his laid-back writing style makes you feel as though you are at a cocktail party with a guy who, despite his occasionally cheesy delivery, knows an awful lot of interesting things about words. In fact, many of his entries have made their way into my own cocktail party conversation. For example, did you know that amethyst, an ancient hangover cure, comes from the Greek for 'not drunk'? STRANGE BEDFELLOWS is full of these gems (no pun intended) and is a must-read for any word lover.

  August 2011

Testify

Zoë Brezsny recommends

Testify by Joseph Lease

TESTIFY is a book of poetry filled with delightful, bittersweet paradoxes. Author Joseph Lease explores the delicate and the heavy, the personal and the universal. Even as he gives us concrete glimpses of harsh reality, he awes us with his beautiful abstractions and lyrical poetic forms. Sorrow interweaves with joy, stark ferocity with tender vulnerability. Lease not only makes us think deeply about the sickened state of society, but where we stand in relation to it. His poems are courageous and unfalteringly honest, simultaneously comforting and awakening.  They ask us to look further inward as we contemplate his portraits of the devastating corruption around us. There is a wonderful musicality to the poems in TESTIFY. The poems resemble songs; they're like melodious mantras leaping from the page, unable to be confined to a bound book. Meaning intensifies through careful repetitions and a lyrical language that convey lightness and darkness at the same time. We feel rushes of gratitude for universally relatable and heartbreaking lines such as: you’re in the rain a million miles from rain and I want to live forever, why not, why not admit it. Reading TESTIFY makes us yearn to shed the silence and apathy that society bequeaths us, and fight harder to tell our own personal truths, our own stories.

  June 2011

Meddle English

Johnny Hernandez recommends

Meddle English by Caroline Bergvall

This was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had with a collection in quite a while. Bergvall, as is implied from the title, is actively engaging or meddling with the ‘living' English language. She begins her work with a selection of Chaucer-like tales that slowly evolve or devolve the language into a texting-type of shorthand and this act of evolution is echoed throughout its pages. She suggests within the work that, like Robert Smithson's projects, the reader can engage and should engage with the tool of language. The work states that from a distance, perspective is an intricate design and she wants her reader to admire its architectural beauty. Yet, when the language is used (rather than followed), a reader and/or speaker becomes like a force of nature, making it yield to her needs. This collection is a sort of broad survey of her work to date and includes some newly published pieces. Believe me however when I say that if you find yourself intrigued by this work, then you NEED to read her other collections. This is a great place to start reading Ms. Bergvall and it's definitely a work that will spark more than a few thoughts about permanence and communication in an on-line existence.

  April 2011

 

Event Factory

Zack Friedman recommends

Event Factory by Renee Gladman

A “linguist-traveler” comes to Ravicka, a yellow city in the midst of a crisis that she cannot grasp and on the verge of a transformation into something unclear. She is there as a kind of cultural tourist, perhaps doing fieldwork, trying to understand the logic of the city. She believes herself to be fluent in Ravic, a language vaguely Esperantic in its evocation of all European languages yet none. Her most uttered word is “Hello.” Renee Gladman has a gift for rendering the slight wrongnesses of unnative speech, the overburdened syntax and unnecessary formality of one who desires to speak with an authenticity she cannot reach. “Are you the one with whom I am speaking?” “Will I be made very happy?” The narrator’s attempts to master the social conventions and, in one of Ravicka’s most brilliantly conceived traits, the body language of the culture consistently fail. Each of her interactions belies her guidebook-like authoritative statements on the city and its people. These are often very funny. Her attempt to conform to the rules of a waking ritual, which requires “tears, the squeezing of lemons, and the plié,” is “interrupted by some superficial blows to the head.” The power and strangeness of this book come in part from its resemblance to a comedy of manners from a civilization whose etiquette we do not understand yet know to be violated by the narrator. Yet her desire to be part of the city where she is only a tourist is oddly touching, as quests whose failure is inextricable from their nature often are.

  January 2011

 

Nick Demske

Zachary Haber recommends

Nick Demske by Nick Demske

Do you have a sense of “humor so dark you mistake/It for chocolate”? If so you should definitely check out Nick Demske’s self-titled book of sonnet self portraits. The book’s about the demons we have inside of us: arrogance, racism, and anger. It’s also about negative emotions: sadness, pain, and loss. Though lots of other poets are writing about these subjects, few are doing it in a way that makes us simultaneously feel great. I remember laughing out loud as I read a poem about the pain Demske feels for the death of his mother. I think what he’s doing is incredibly powerful: transforming and shaping negativity into beauty.

Warning! This book is not for the easily offended or rigid poetic traditionalists. Demske uses phrases worthy of the filthiest of middle schoolers. He claims, facetiously, that the holocaust never existed. He often puts his line-breaks in the middle of words. There’s more than mere shock value going on here, though. Demske’s using ugly language to speak about the ugly. He’s defiling the old to make the new. He’s being honest, American style: symbolically, sarcastically.

 

 

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