Staff Picks (January 2018)
Omg, we love small press books! And these are some of our favorites. Now they can be some of your favorites too...if they aren't already. Be sure to check in every month for a new handful to add to your reading list...lists...so many lists.
All January 2018 Staff Picks 20% off
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Books about anxiety are too often deemed feminine and interiortoo personally specific. But in the refractive kaleidoscope of ALCHEMY FOR CELLS & OTHER BEASTS, anxiety becomes an externalised and colorful weapon, one encompassing not just the landscape of the self, but the universe as it affects the self, the tales of other selves around the self. From geologic time to climate change, individual anxiety spreads virally throughout the book, populating its readers with the troubling accoutrements of human existence and its oft negative impacts "so mammal / so leathery like our sin / the one I cover over my organs / like a filmy curtain." Accompanied by misleadingly succulent artwork by Carrie DeBacker, ALCHEMY FOR CELLS & OTHER BEASTS is a journey at turns mystical and frightening, guilt-inducing and comforting, muddling humanity's oppressive force with its animal instincts, all without being self-righteous or accusatory. We exist, it seems to say, and we have an impact. And what that is can be beautiful or frightening it's up to us.
I like to stay fairly chipper around the SPD office. It's what I refer to as my Positive Mental Attitude. PMA, like the seminal punk band Bad Brains say. I feel like having a good attitude is the real difference maker in life. Have you ever been around someone who, while maybe is very talented and quite skilled, has a bad attitude? It's the worst. They are exhausting and their shitty mood can just suck the joy out of the room. I, personally, would rather be around someone who is talent-less and unskilled who has a great can-do attitude, who doesn't make one of those sour faces when faced with adversity or boredom. So I try to be that positive force for myself and the people around me. And this book HIGH ON LOW: HARNESSING THE POWER OF UNHAPPINESS really does help, because, deep down, I truly hate everything about this world.
As always, Vi stands entirely in a realm of her own with her latest work. The book starts with the poem "your clitoris is gone," whose first line "You are an alien wearing a sheep-asshole hat," had me laughing in I'm-uncomfortable-in-me panic, before it really goes off the rails into is-this-Will-Alexander apocrypha of specificity, and panic is all there is. Every line has that weight of the prophet force to it, where the reader, who doesn't talk to the same gods, is dazed by the wtf is going on. And then and then you realize Vi is fucking with you, again. Where 4.3 is completely specific as a number and meaning, but then in the next poem, it's suddenly 4.5 that matters, and you're like shit, I've been got, and you're too in it to back out. "sonic titillation" is the most erotic poem you've read while being a sheep. As in she makes you into a sheep, and then wakes you up, as a sheep, from a really upsettingly sexual sheep dream, and describes your sheep-self masturbating to its too-sexual dream of images broken down into wheat. This is a deeply strange book of poetry (novel, I want to call it a novel, I'm sure I just read a novel but I don't know where it went) that is unlike anything you've ever read but that's not the part about it that's good, that's just background, like saying a sheep is a mammal. UMBILICAL HOSPITAL circles around the same language and concepts again and again, shocking you more into their fleshy parts. It's always a shock, always a surprise, especially when you come away feeling actually really good about yourself, like you've been pampered somehow when the comb of the last poem passes over you, like you did something right, something specific.
The world suggested by the poems in Elke Erb's THE UP AND DOWN OF FEET is filled with ordinary life, mysterious experiences, observation, poetry, history, and randomness. It is a dark world, uneasy with threats and disappointment. It is also a luminous one with an intensity that makes each next plainly worded line revelatory, almost symbolic. "As firm as a cloud, // that dark one, hanging low / as if heave: // no guarantee."
As a reader I found myself mystified, warned, a bit fearful, and impelled to continue.
The 19 century was fearful because it moved into
what its respectable industrialists and busy
had emptied out, i.e. robbed blind: the once normal,
in intact nature natural density of definitions,
from areas so complex they represent vastness.
And then there was dark.
I quote this entire poem because it's a good example of a quality in Erb's work that is, to men, almost undefinable. A phrase, "melancholy toughness," from her Mountains in Berlin, also translated by Rosmarie Waldrop and published by Burning Deck in 1995, suggests the feeling produced by the work and how I began to think of Elke Erb as I was reading it. The comments on the back of THE UP AND DOWN OF FEET suggest that Erb's "pleasure in words is infectious." I heartily agree with this sentiment and would only add that her pleasure in an accurate, terrifying and yet redeeming darkness is also communicable.
"Melancholy" is very much the feeling one has knowing this is one of the last two of the Burning Deck books (along with Triste Tristan
by Paol Keineg). It has been an incredible run and we at SPD, and dedicated readers of poetry everywhere, are incredibly grateful to Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop for their brilliant writing and teaching and their wonderful service to the community with Burning Deck books. Thank you!