Dear Ma: Memories From Ocean Vuong

For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true?
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.

Robert Frost, “The Black Cottage” 

Being a diarist most of my life, I began dabbling in journaling at ages before I could properly write between lines. Not so much an unerring habit—such as the spectacular fortitude of esteem diarist Anaïs Nin—the life of my diary is nothing like that of the sun, unyielding and burning, but more like that of the moon; constant, only in that it has its phases, waxing and waning throughout the seasons. 

Years moving in and out of written existence, slivers of letters and notes that roll into decades of overflowing journals; tickets and newspaper clippings and bottle caps and torn poems glued and shoved inside. Then—for little reason other than the cycle—a big nothing, for weeks or months, sometimes years at a time. Immediate then, with a crack, the light comes back, and it all starts again. As of current, I have been journaling near daily since 2015. 

Some nights I have little to say; others seem to have me skating downhill where I will write seven pages or more. When I was younger, I never considered my diary for what it was: my past. Those pages were seen as the refuge for thoughts unflushed, dreams dreamt, actions unlived; for accomplishments still going, for failures seeming without end; for matters that happened like bombs and burned everything into dirt, page and pen taking on the utility of dustpan and broom. It wasn’t until my later years, and the journals and letters started to stack up, that I began to understand; understand the profound amount of idle work that goes into a life, and the world-shifting events that grow from that mundanity, like a forest on a mountainside. 

Sudden, it happens: you have a past. More than that, it is surprisingly large. It spills over the desk, it takes up the whole bottom bookshelf; it collects dust in the musty chest by the door, it falls all over you when you’re trying to pull free a reference volume out the back of the closet; it begins to seize space, both outside and in; your mind get sticky in lethologica, you keep having to move boxes around to make it all fit; you might consider, in fact, getting rid of it all, until you realize that there is nothing that can be rid. It all happened, all of it, and it’s all comprised in you. Who knew a 33 year old, 5’7”, 120 pound woman could fit so much. You start to be in awe of it, in perpetual astonishment of living and time. Being a diarist is a wonderful kind of sorcery—the past made manifest, all those failed and successful templates of you given lungs to breathe, teeth to eat, eyes to see. Those past selves intermingle, they overlap, they talk behind your back—it’s a kind wilderness. Darwinism and mysticism and cartography and art. There is, amazingly, so so much, even in the little life.

So, one day, you throw the philosophy of identity out the window, because it ceases to make sense, and you make a place for a new philosophy, and you lucidly call it “self”. Somedays, it is simply “me”. Other days you don’t call it anything at all, but merely feel it, like a tender kiss on a wound.

For birthday number 33, my friend (of 33 years, a sister really) sent me On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Since then, I have not been able to stop remembering things, some things I had never even written down. But others I’d find, lodged in a middle-page, rolled like a scroll in a drawer. Vuong’s novel, built on confession and poetry, brought me to the vast shores of my own memory. And, as experienced, it was gorgeous. 

OnEarth_OceanVuongcoverWhen I first started writing, I hated myself for being so uncertain, about images, clauses, ideas, even the pen or journal I used. Everything I wrote began with maybe and perhaps and ended with I think or I believe. But my doubt is everywhere, Ma. Even when I know something to be true as bone I fear the knowledge will dissolve, will not, despite my writing it, stay real. I’m breaking us apart again so that I might carry us somewhere else–where, exactly, I’m not sure. Just as I don’t know what to call you–White, Asian, orphan, American, mother?

Sometimes we are given only two choices. While doing research, I read an article from an 1884 El Paso Daily Times, which reported that a white railroad worker was on trial for the murder of an unnamed Chinese man. The case was ultimately dismissed. The judge, Roy Bean, cited that Texas law, while prohibiting the murder of human beings, defined a human only as White, African American, or Mexican. The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.  

I first read Ocean Vuong back in 2018 when I read his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Copper Canyon. An exciting new poet, Vuong’s verses played with a gentle sorrow and a steady, delicate vulnerability, and I was looking forward to his next collection of poetry. It was a pleasant surprise, when I learned upon the arrival of my friend’s package in the mail, that he had written a novel instead. Happy surprise, but also, sober trepidation. To be frank, when poets decide to become novelists, as a reader, I’ve come to find it usually doesn’t go very well. The ability to hold onto the thread of progressional narrative that a novel requires (or, at its best requires) usually isn’t what the poet excels at. The poet excels in the swing, launching from one extreme to another, making far reaching connections and maintaining an emotive voice that rises above events and makes way into a greater truth. The novelist, on the other hand, must maintain a sense of balance, and preserve a formula of logic that can shoot straight like an arrow from a bow and hit its intended mark. (Or, if multiple threads are being juggled, marks.) The poet doesn’t prioritize landing upon any goal or intent; the poet merely bleeds out all over the floor. Once bled, the pool fully formed, a reader can come to gaze at the reflective images cast. Poets and novels, for some reason, rarely make good bedfellows. (Strange, that it’s not so consistent vice-versa.)  

So here I was holding Ocean Vuong’s first novel in my hands and going, “Aaaaaaaah,” and, tepidly, I began the first chapter, and read those first words, Let me begin again. Dear Ma, 

And full-stop. Right there, I made an executive decision, and that decision was that On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was not a novel, and I shouldn’t read it as such. Throw genre out the window; Ocean Vuong was a poet, and you can take the words out of a poet but you can’t take the poet out of the words. So I read Ocean Vuong’s book under that umbrella, and now, finished with Vuong’s pages, I can say, wholeheartedly, I think it was the right choice. For in suspending the criteria of what makes a good novel allowed me to encounter the work beyond the eye of critique, and what Vuong’s work truly seems to express is the dilemma of the philosopher’s qualia; the singular experience of being inside a specific moment in time, and the inevitable corruption of that experience by way of time proceeding from it and its transmutation into memory. 

Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous leads a reader through a series of immersive contact. Through incredibly sensory-specific prose, a reader knows the musk of the hay, the coarseness of a boy’s arm hair, the aroma of an empty beer bottle, the willowy strand of wind on a nape. What is not so clearly rendered, is the emotions ever present yet fragile throughout Vuong’s penning. Is it remorse or bittersweetness? Is it love or understanding? Is it anger or sadness? Told in first person narrative, by way of a young man, Little Dog, writing a letter to his mother, Vuong’s story is less a story and more a journey of reminiscence. “Outside, the leaves fell, fat and wet as dirty money, across the windows,” “I remember the walls curling like a canvas as the fire blazed,” and “Ma. You once told me that memory is a choice. But if you were god, you’d know it’s a flood.” While reading, I was constantly caught and flung into my own memories; the scent of cedar in the wooden playground, the jitters of my first job, riding on handlebars down roads in the dark, snow inside my mitten, sirens whirring, my shivers. 

Traveling through difficult subjects, such as race, class, sexuality, war and trauma, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a gallery of memories. Not just memories of our protagonist, Little Dog, but also of his mother’s, his grandmother’s, and his father’s, memories relayed and digested and re-relayed in splinters of sequences. The writing quietly questions, What changes during all this passing? It is a retrospective painting of pure blue, cut up and then put back together. Does every piece need to be placed exactly as it was for it to be that same blue? Can such a blue ever be again after the cutting? This is the philosopher’s qualia, and Vuong’s mosaic suggests that perhaps painting and cutting up blue is just the inevitability of feeling and rearranging in time. Specifics fall to the wayside. Certainty is an emotion felt, and not a fact of matter. While reading, a surrender can happen, and one accepts the stream of consciousness of the work. 

Another element of Ocean Vuong’s novel is that of arrival and departure. Life has us move in and out of lives, in and out of places, in and out of emotions, in and out of knowledge, in and out of truth. Much like my diary, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reminded me of the phasing within living, and how what is real as stone one day becomes dust the next. It is not repetition, but wheeling forward in persistent fashion; of being on top or bottom, in front or behind patterns with time, but the road races up forever new.  A mixture of sameness and utter originality; what could remain completely untouched through all this barreling? Not much, it would seem. I would say not a thing at all. 

I once read that memory is an old woman who hoards colored rags and throws away food. The nature of being can sometimes seem a delusional act. We shift inside ourselves, and sometimes, seem to fly out of our bodies like ghosts. Many would say memory is what holds us—I, the person—together, and that without we would crumble; others seem to think entirely in the future, to leave the past in the past and harbor no doubts nor regrets about what has been, and that each event gone only means you have a bright white page unwritten on to look forward to. But these are merely postures, are they not? Very few open their eyes underwater without goggles. How can we see clearly, without the light shining there? I want to say Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter to the past, but in its heart, Vuong’s novel knows that no such address exists; Vuong sends the letter out to be delivered into memory, and it is received, only to be altered by the state.

For about two weeks, I have flipped through my journals, that all put together make my diary. It has been enlightening, falling upon a date, and saying “Oh, I remember that day,” only to be corrected that I barely remember it at all. Other times, my memory is frightening in its accuracy, giving the impression that I could nail a game show or succeed as some sort of wizard of recall. But all these events, poured onto the page, are not merely files to be pulled and so inserted back in; they are all with me, every moment of every second of my life since their occurrence. We do not grow out of old skins, like snakes, and slip them off. It is an evolution, and each rotation brings another wave of substance that dissolves into us. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous speaks to this.    

Read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, not as a novel, but as a color that was once a different shade of blue. But, if we hang on long enough, might it become pure blue again? 

In our hearts we’ll say, That’s it. That’s my blue.  

Blue_Mondule_Jenny Lynn
Blue portrait by Jenny Lynn Hall

Five out of five stars for Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.    

In the House in the Dark of the Woods

When one thinks of folklore it is unlikely the considered would include the United States. More likely candidates would be the isles of Great Britain and Ireland with their abundant fairy faith traditions, or perhaps Malaysia, with its spectacular wealth of ghosts and spirits. The folklore of North America, in most minds, tends to lean toward Mesoamerica and that of Native American or Mayan culture, before the Europeans came and (supposedly) sucked all the good stories out.

hamlin-nain_rouge-full_page23
Page of the Nain Rouge from Legends of Le Détroit. Illustration by Isabella Stewart

It’s hard to argue against this perspective; it would appear Americana was less into creating its own lore and fables and more into borrowing from other traditions. This is no doubt due to the melting-pot—but, a few interesting ones stand out. The Jersey Devil of the Pine Barrens; the mischievous spirit of northern Wisconsin, the Hodag; the red Demon of the Straight, Nain Rouge, of Detroit; the Bell Witch Haunting of Tennessee; of course, there is Bigfoot. A lot of USA folklore exists inside urban legends, those scary stories told at sleepovers with a bag of potato chips and a flashlight tucked near the chin. Strangely, clowns dominate in this arena of tale telling, as every kid who grew up in the Midwest knows the spooky meaning behind the rather confusing idiom, “Clowns can lick too.” The myth and legends of the USA can no doubt present a bit of a challenge to the classical folklorist.

But there is a period of USA history that is indeed loaded with folklore and tall tales. Colonial America, surprisingly, has an enormous body of writings that have survived and remain an engaging treat to any folklorist or investigative individual interested in the study or dabbling of folkloristics.

And here enters fiction; colonial America is a particularly uncharted land. After all my years of reading, I can say that the amount of authors I’ve read that chose to plant their flag in colonial America is quite small. Usually when it happens, it is an indulgent romp of semi-historical account involving romance of some kind, or, it is the Salem Witch Trials. Either way, the pickings are slim. Passing through the bookstore, I spotted a red paperback with an eerie design of pale clutching hands circling a wolf’s head. Gravitating towards it, once it was in my fingers I flipped it over to find the words “this magical and frightening tale of colonial America” and I spanked it to my friend immediately, saying, “Wow, colonial America, something for you!” He bought it promptly, and about a month later, I got to sink my teeth into In The House In The Dark Of The Woods by Laird Hunt. 

Narrated in the first person, the small novel opens on a young married woman searching for berries out in the forest by her humble home. Already, In The House In The Dark Of The Woods has the distinctive feel of a fairy tale. Quickly over the next few pages our protagonist becomes lost; darkness swiftly skates into the tall trees; our confused and increasingly frightened heroine desperately tries to find her path back, to no avail. Her mind wanders, her thoughts and memories move in and out. Through a progression of events, she finds herself laid up in a mysterious house, somewhere in the dark and wending wood. A woman named Eliza who lives there tends to our lady’s bruised and battered feet. But there is more to Eliza than meets the eye, and soon the darkness itself begins to speak. 

Dark of the Woods_jacket

[..] It came in a chorus this time, from the front room and outside the window, yes, but now also from other places: from down in the root cellar under the wood plank of the floor where Eliza did her scratching, from the ceiling boards, from the chimney shaft, from the walls, even from my own room. Who is moaning in my room? I thought. Is it me or is it Eliza? Only here I was and here was she. The moaning stopped. “Eliza,” I said. But she did not move at the sound of my voice any more than the Eliza in the front room had. “Eliza,” I said again, more loudly, and though the shape in the bed before me stayed silent, the moan sounded alone once more. 

It came from farther down the hall, from a room I had not yet entered. I took Eliza’s candle with me for there was no light or very little by this door. I stood before it for what felt like a long time. At last I pulled at the latch and held up the candle and there lay Eliza curled on the floor. A smell of wet and burning both came toward me. Her eyes were open. She was looking at me.

“You should go and rest now, Goody,” she said.

I did not move. “Where are you?” I asked.

“In the house in the dark of the woods.”   

It took me some time to like this book. There is a heavy lag in the former-middle of the text that leaches hard at the attention span; however, luckily this drag does not last for long. Laird Hunt’s writing is extremely paced, though occasionally, a blade of beautiful prose slices through, and the style and function is very much like those of colonial writings, giving the novel a genuine feel that fits the period. The story itself tumbles more like poetry, as if Hunt were feeling out the bottom of a murky pool with his toes. With a smart slash of Magic Realism in the signature, the main element of the book is nebulous, evading stringent categories and strict lessons. Laird Hunt seems to be exploring what most fairy tales—modern and old—seek to accomplish: a way of navigating and understanding the dangers and cruelties of the world, safely. Affection and abuse, confinement and freedom, respect and shame are just some of the binaries Hunt traverses on his journey. Our three main characters, Eliza, Captain Jane, and Goody, are all women of tragedy, and rather grimly, Laird Hunt tells their conflicting tales through a combination of metaphor, fabulism, historical fact, and perhaps most of all, memory.

Disquieting at parts but mostly just brow raising, In The House In The Dark Of The Woods is plump with fantastical imagery. Intersecting timelines, astounding insect swarms, flying boats, frightening transformations, a bird with massive human arms, Hunt’s imagination comes in force. That said, often times the force feels just that–forced. It seems that the storytelling itself—the fleshing of characters, the intents of events, the never-ending road of internal dialogue—was left to the wayside as Hunt plowed his pen into his inkpot, determined to make the strange stranger and the magical more magical. It leaves a book that is full of pain, mystery, and resurrection oddly hollow. Reading In The House In The Dark Of The Woods was like going through Samsara, a repetition of circumstances and a square dance of trading places that at best leads to little further understanding and at worst to head-scratching confusion. The scenes are phantasmagoric, the enchantment at times wonderful if not also jarring. But Laird Hunt, so very determined it would seem to be as elusive as he can, gives little to hold on to. The reader is left with a handful of soot, and the novel is quickly lost to the back of the shelf before being hauled out to be exchanged for some credit at a secondhand bookstore.

Nevertheless, there are some bright parts. Chapters 18 through 25 are particularly engaging. For a book of 28 chapters and an epilogue, its a promising show of writing. Hunt is at his best when he gets out of his own head and into the moment. When given a character and a sole perspective, Hunt’s writing flounders, as though he were attempting to build a house on stilts without proper anchoring. But put that character into motion, have them interact with the characters and world around them—damn, then Hunt delivers. Often times the dialogue In The House In The Dark Of The Woods (and there is quite a lot) is like reading an author playing ball with himself. But given some patience, Laird Hunt proves himself to be a capable writer. For a moment, a reader can almost forget all the slosh they slugged through to get there. For a moment, Hunt breaks into something great.         

All and all, Laird Hunt’s seesawing fairy tale of colonial America is a fine read. A good writer, and a good enough storyteller, Hunt has woven a vibrant, detailed tapestry, and though the expression of light and color would seem to outweigh the precision of the needlework, it is still a beautiful piece of art. Give yourself three afternoons, drink it in; a reader can no doubt be swept away by Hunt’s occasional stunning verse or a rolling dynamic scene. Muscle through the mucky parts, and make it to the final page. I thought it was worth it, so hopefully, you will too. 

Dark of the Woods_Hunt_cover

3 stars for Laird Hunt’s colonial folktale In The House In The Dark Of The Woods.  

On Making Room: Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet (With Poem)

From 2012 to early 2018, I lived in a one bedroom apartment on the edge of a cemetery, and my life was full of crows. 

Out my window, just beyond my balcony, in the Seattle fog that rolls in during the late and early year, the trees would hang as ghostly elementals over the stones, the graves shone slick with morning dew, and all along the roads there would be dozens and dozens of sleek black crows. Crows refined looking, and crows ruffly and cowled, crows young and crows old. I’d walk through the cemetery, and they’d line the branches, both eyeing and disregarding me. Somedays they’d set themselves to a chorus, but mostly they’d  give small caw here and there. One time, I spotted a beautiful feather, and picked it up; all together, they began to scold me, and insisted that I drop the feather and leave the premises at once. We made up, and went on with our mutual ignoring; neither of us really too interested in the other, but we were neighbors, so we behaved neighborly.   

CrowPlanet_illustration_DC
Illustration by Daniel Cautrell, featured in Lyanda Haupt’s Crow Planet.

I’ve never been terribly in love with crows, but from time-to-time I have admired them from afar. It is hard for me to love animals in much the way the modern world does, what with the abundant cooing and fawning over their fluffy bodies and lovely eyes. Mine has always been too encased in respect to allow so much coddling. I’ve always viewed animals, both domestic and wild, in much the same way I view people: individuals who deserve their due space and freedom. However, to say I imagine animals as same to people, would duly be a mistake. Nature has its paths, and at some point humanity deviated and forged its own. This is not a tragedy, nor an ascendance; the animals have their lives, and we have ours. Each of us holds some power over the other, and each of us applies to the will of the Earth. We different, yet equal things.  

But I do prefer to be outside than in, and I do prefer a book about wilderness and ecosystems over a book about mechanisms and molecularism. It is the whole, in tandem with itself, that I find most interesting. That which exists not alongside, but entangled with. So naturalism attracts me, with its many threads and knots and bows. When I spotted Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness at a local bookstore, I was instantly intrigued. Words “urban” and “wilderness” are not typically harmoniously found together, and as this segregationist idea of what constitutes Nature (capital N) has always nagged me, I thought I’d give it a whirl. That its author Lyanda Lynn Haupt lives in Seattle was an added bonus. A whole book about my crow neighbors—irresistible.

Within the first ten pages, I learned new things about crows. This was an encouraging start, and that encouragement turned into satisfaction throughout the reading. Finely worded, with silky prose and verse that at times teetered on the demurely, Crow Planet takes the cloak of a memoir, Lyanda Haupt draping every page in the details of her daily life and in the emotion of her inner being. Openly discussing her bouts of depression, her motherhood, her interactions with people, her work with the Audubon Society and her own personal pursuits both studious and spiritual, Haupt pens us a braid of narratives, each ribbon of discussion carefully folded in with the others, again and again, intersecting things into a diligent plait. Haupt takes us across and down all sorts of avenues: from the grooming techniques of birds to Greek philosophers, from the stringent teaching styles of Louis Agassiz to the simple enlightenments of taking a walk, Haupt makes it clear that things intertwine.

Crow Planet_CoverClearly, our cities, suburbs, and houses cry out for improvements that reflect ecological knowledge. I am not claiming they are as natural as those places we traditionally think of as Nature or Wilderness. They are not enough. They are, nevertheless, inhabited by spiders, snails, raccoons, hawks, coyotes, earthworms, fungi, snakes, and crows. They are surrounded as surely as any wilderness by clouds, sky, and stars. They are sparsely populated by beautiful, unsung, eccentric-seeming people who have spent decades studying the secret lives of warblers or dragonflies or nocturnal moths or mushrooms. They are our homes, our habitats, our ecosystems.

The title Crow Planet has two intertwined meanings. First, it refers to an earth upon which native biodiversity is gravely threatened, where in too many places the rich variety of species is being noticeably replaced by a few prominent, dominant, successful species (such as crows). At the same time, Crow Planet alludes to the fact that no matter where we dwell, or how, our lives are implicated in, and informed by, all of wilder life through the insistent presence of native wild creatures (such as crows). 

Laced with posing quotes from famous writers and opening with beautiful illustrations by Daniel Cautrell, Lyanda Haupt sections Crow Planet into ten chapters, each relaying a particular aspect of crow life while simultaneously probing the deeper crossways of humans and nature. Throughout, Haupt herself seems to be going on a journey, emerging from the cocoon of a “post-hippie Earth-firster, tree-sitting, ecofeminist, radical birdwatcher, Earth Mother” into a—simply put—hopeful academic. The narrative’s a bit weighed in humble complaints and brags, Haupt clearly unable to fully shake away the emotional attachment of believing herself to be distinctive and, for a lack of a more accurate word coming to mind, special. That said, Haupt is a genuinely interesting human being, with insightful things to say and a wide, balanced range of knowledge. Without ado I can say I enjoyed Lyanda Lynn Haupt, as a teacher, as an eccentric (self-proclaimed) and as a person. Poetic, enchanted by the world around her, sensitive, and earnest in her craft, Haupt has a tender touch and a rounded way of looking at things. 

Lyanda-Haupt-portrait
Wonderful and fun portrait of author Lyanda Lynn Haupt via lyandalynnhaupt.com

And the crows. Oh yes, we can’t forget about them. Being probably the reason most passersby will pick up Haupt’s book, Crow Planet delivers with a fabulous banquet of knowledge about our chatty, trash-picking, wind-surfing neighbors. Information both nomothetic and anecdotal, unless already a crow expert, a reader is certain to learn a thing or two about corvids. From social behaviors to anatomy, from mating and parental rituals to flight dynamics, Lyanda Haupt’s book is sure to cover most questions a crow lover would like answered. Additionally, on more than one occasion, Haupt expands her expertise on birds to reveal herself to be a fine intellect of other subjects, such as history and botany. Yet perhaps most engaging, and most enduring, is Haupt’s helpfulness in guiding others to become explorers of their own backyards. Crow Planet does more than lecture; it provides a prosaic toolkit for the how-tos of looking and taking notes. Anyone can be a researcher of nature, Haupt assures, for there’s simply so much to see, that 7 billion people all scratching at once in their journals wouldn’t be enough to jot it all down. In Haupt’s writing, one thing is clear: that the world is vast and changing all the time, and to catch a bit of its wisdom one must be willing to sit patiently for a time, and watch, and listen, and diligently take some notes.

I see more gulls than crows nowadays, having moved closer to the sea and away from the cemetery. I enjoy the pulsing calls of the seabirds in the morning, but at times, I find myself wistful for the mad croaks of crows permeating the quiet of the day. Last spring, a crow pair had made a nest atop my new apartment building, and each night of angry gusts the wind would send bits of bric-a-brac all over the community deck, shiny coins and coat buttons and yarn all over the tables and chairs. The urban wilderness is messy, and crowded, all of us trying to find where we fit in within the ceaseless turning wheel of existence and time, but I maintain that what the crow thinks of me is similar to what I think of the crow: another occupant, to which I should respect and abide by. Occasionally, we will pique each others interest, and perhaps form a friendship; maybe we will meet each other’s eyes, and encounter a more profound understanding.

But ultimately, as Lyanda Haupt reminds, we are together in all of this. This planet is our home, and increasingly, we as humans need to be more mindful of taking care of it. We all take up space, which makes it all the more imperative to make sure we make room for others. Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness is a dreamy, musing guide on how we might go about creating space, and how we might go about refashioning our human world into a scape that is more heedful, more respectful, and more caring to our flora and fauna neighbors. Including crows. 

Crow_print
Beautiful cover illustration by Olef Hajek

Four out of Five stars for Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.

And now, a poem.

Crow

Dear crow, with your cold, shined wing. I never see
the goldfinches, the robins, the chickadees, the stellar jays,

only you. Only you, with your cackles, your
folk dances, invisible hurdles you are maneuvering,

sudden launches, lithe, and pillow fine landings, your hands
gripping the spider web of cables that stretch from Snohomish

to Tukwila, you are everywhere, all at once
one hundred versions of you leap into the air

as a black wild fire, a storm of onyx, an ebony deluge
that is seizing the peaceful blue day and sending death

a marching across my mind. I see my loved ones, long passed,
in the obsidian cloud swirling, harking laughs

echoing across Aurora Avenue, slick eyes wide, beaks
stabbing at the bone housing my heart set on the lonely island

of this mortal life. Yes, yes I know, that one day,
I will be a morsel, dust of the earth. You’ve instructed.

Crow, I have dreams of you, inside my bedroom,
speaking in a human voice. You are always uncommonly kind.

“Crow” by Renwick Berchild, first published in March, 2017.


The cover image is of Vincent van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows” painted July 1890. Van Gogh died on July 29th that year, so it is believed to be the last piece he ever painted, though it is uncertain among historians, as no clear records exist. Image provided by Wikipedia – Thank You. 

The JAM: Yahtzee Croshaw’s Humor/Horror Adventure

“No really, I actually think you’ll like this.”

I gave my friend the brow, which is the raised left eyebrow I traditionally extend to invoke my incredulousity on any manner of subjects, but mostly harmless “recommendations” (though, over the years I’ve come to call them “insistences”).

“This is the book by that internet guy you’re always watching who does the sarcastic and mean yellow and black stick-man reviews, right?” I posed in the tone.

“Yeah, but I really do think you’ll like it.” His emphasis on the word really really exposing his doubts rather than alleviating them.

But what the heck, I’ll read anything. So I read Jam by a guy named Yahtzee Croshaw. And you know what? I didn’t hate it.

With a cover that’s a throwback to the 80’s science-fiction paperbacks of yore, Jam starts straightforwardly, not wasting time with unnecessary character build-ups or scenic strolls. Right off the bat, the event happens—BANG! Our protagonist, Travis (no last name), wakes up to go to work and discovers that his city has been overrun with flesh-eating strawberry jam (or, something that very much resembles strawberry jam) by watching his roommate Frank slide down a banister to only be promptly slurped. From this point on, the slightly dim but rather good-hearted Travis and a gang of mishmashed survivors struggle to make it in the ever hungry, ever sticky, ever fruity smelling dystopia.

JAM_cover“It was a pleasant, cloudless Brisbane day. The sun beamed cheerfully across the balconies of the vacant flats opposite. I slid the balcony doors aside, and felt the warm breeze play gently on my face. What a lovely day. By now Frank, Frank who was dead, would have reached the gym, probably flirting with the receptionist on his way to the locker room. If he hadn’t been dead, that is.

I kept my gaze focused on the clear blue sky and stepped forward until I could clench my hands around the railing. I took a deep breath. Then I looked down.

The jam had filled the courtyard and foyer and pushed the water out of the swimming pool. Where it touched walls, little tendrils snaked their way upwards like searching fingers. There was an overpowering stench of strawberries.

From my vantage point I could see into some of the ground-floor apartments. All of them were half-filled with jam, the top halves of TVs and stereos poking up like electronic islets. The occupants were nowhere to be seen.”

With a very thick, bulging vein of modern humor coursing throughout the bulk of the book, it isn’t clear whether Croshaw is punching up or down; really, he seems to have just clipped a clothespin over his nose and jumped in. A story of adventure, Jam has gone the horror/whimsical route, taking the morally confusing path of a lot of contemporary adult cartoons which usually end with creators shrugging their shoulders and balking, “It’s not real, so what does it matter? Just laugh it off, folks.” Croshaw does a little better, never taking up the reader’s time to explain his intentions or lack thereof: there’s jam and it loves the taste of organic meaty bits and its everywhere—oh what are our band of woefully unprepared misfits going to doooooo!

Without shame, I will say I’m a tad of a hardsell when it comes to the slapstick, modish comedy of our times; however, I genuinely found a lot of Croshaw’s Jam funny and even found myself laughing out loud during some of the outrageous situations Croshaw throws his characters into. Ultimately, Jam seems to be a novel about regular people, and the swathe-nature of the modern day zeitgeist: when the worst comes to pass, and the layers of the age are concentrated to their purest elements by way of disaster, what will the archetypal materials of our collective be? Croshaw presents a world hellbent on detachment and irony, emotionally stunted by the ratrace, and trapped inside the restrictive bonds of the 40+ hour workweek. He does all this with a big, jovial laugh track, meanwhile people die and behave selfishly, cower and follow obediently, and sometimes, occasionally, something brave and truly meaningful breaks free. Though not nihilistic, there is a smack of irritation from Croshaw. (Whether he is aware of it, this reviewer can’t say.)

SuspiciousCrowshaw_wjam
Cute image of author Yahtzee Croshaw being very suspicious of jar of strawberry jam. Stolen from his YouTube channel – let’s hope he doesn’t mind.

The novel breaks down the event (being the Jam Apocalypse) into 9.2 days, which is fairly rare for a sci-fi, taking a narrative path more commonly chosen by mystery and thriller writers. This works well, considering the intensity of the scape Croshaw has chosen, and throughout the days and nights our characters gain and lose, gain and lose, cope with their present situation by way of camcorders, work projects, hope of a New World Order, and (my particular favorite) a parental attachment to a Goliath Birdeater spider named Mary, all the while waddling around in the jam via plastic garbage bags (it is discovered that the jam, for whatever reason, prefers organic carbon-based snacks and does not consume plastic, therefore much of Brisbane is conveniently spared) and navigating a sailboat from cursory colony to cursory colony, everyone having gone loony from the surprise of flesh-gobbling jam showing up. Some individuals seem to go mad with power (or, mad with potential power) and others grip their fingers around the idea that none of this is permanent or really even happening, spending all their cognitive energies avoiding the very real sticky hungry blob outside. Where the jam-blob came from, no one seems to know, but a few set out to find the inception point, and a couple have secrets that they’re refusing to share.

The book tumbles into a bit of a of Schusterfleck, with the same notes being played over and over again higher and higher until at last the crescendo pops. Ending abruptly, and on a rather bittersweet chord, Croshaw closes up shop. It’s a good enough conclusion, a satisfying enough wrap, and I have no qualms with it. All and all, Yahtzee Croshaw’s book surprised me. Though this reader prefers the lacy, filigreed writing of the late 19th, early 20th centuries, Croshaw’s direct modern style operated perfectly for his humorous, strawberry-preserved tale, mapping the places and plots expertly and rendering fine characters, one-dimensional as they were.

Without further ado, Jam delivers. It’s fun, fast-paced, and is a refreshing turn away from much that currently sits on the science-fiction/fantasy shelf. So go give it a try. This YouTube reviewer has punched out a good book, and this long time reader sends her regards: I liked it!

3 and ½ stars for Yahtzee Croshaw’s Jam. And, I think—maybe—I’ll be more open to my friend’s recommendations from here on.

Now, let’s all go watch The Blob.

It eats YOU


The featured image is of the 1958 indie classic film The Blob, directed by Irvin Yeaworth and starring 1960’s bad-boy heartthrob Steve McQueen. According to Wikipedia, “The storyline concerns a growing, corrosive, alien amoeboidal entity that crashes to Earth from outer space inside a meteorite. It devours and dissolves citizens in the small communities of Phoenixville and Downingtown, PA, growing larger, redder, and more aggressive each time it does so, eventually becoming larger than a building.” – As always, thank you. 

All About Function Words(?): Pennebaker’s Secret Life Of Pronouns

A decent read for sleuths, James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is a book to remind that little things can invoke big realizations.

For a paperback I snatched from the store on a whim, The Secret Life Of Pronouns turned out to be a very enjoyable Sherlockian jaunt around the basic principles of language and how they reflect the human psyche. Though not exactly a rich, or deeply educative read, nonetheless I learned things and had genuine fun participating in the several exercises and small tests Pennebaker peppers throughout the book. Though there are holes—to be sure—and some of the items presented feel lackluster and obvious, Pennebaker has knitted together a fine, comfortable read that will likely pique the interest of any inquisitive brain seeking to snoop a bit into the external lives and mentalities of others.

SecretLifeOfPronouns_coverAlthough the analysis of language is the focus of this book, it is really a work of psychology. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language for its own sake, I’m interested in what people’s words say about their psychological states. Words, then, can be thought of as powerful tools to excavate people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and connections with others. With advancements in computer technologies, this approach is informing a wide range of scholars across many disciplines–linguists, sociolinguistics, English scholars, anthropological linguists, neuroscientists, psycholinguists, developmentalists, computer scientists, computational linguists, and others. Some of the most innovative work is now coming from collaborations between academics of all stripes and companies such as Google.

Aside from the points of being a tad repetitious and quite a lot naïve about machine-learning technologies and their impacts, Pennebaker is a fun, pep-filled narrator, enthusiastic about his work and eager to share. This animated, optimistic energy is ensnaring, and keeps the pages turning regardless of whether the subject matter has become tiresome and stretched (and therefore thinned) to its capacity. Certainly, the childlike twinkle in Pennebaker’s eye shows up in his writing, and though the book itself could have been shaved down to 150 pages or less, he makes it worthwhile. Pennebaker, after many years of service in his field, has discovered something; and he is excited—oh yes he is excited—and like a kid with a newfound love of dinosaurs, Pennebaker launches himself headlong into telling us all about it.

Broken down into ten chapters, the book opens with the basics: a short refresher on elementary school grammar, function and content words and what the differences are, and how our words and speaking styles represent our emotional states, and furthermore, our personalities. Specifically, Pennebaker is interested in function words, and the book (rightly so) revolves almost entirely around them.

What are function words? We’ll do a quick lesson. Check out this sentence of mine I hastily jotted down in one of my notebooks some unknown time ago:

…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

I picked this specifically because its rather nebulous; however, any reader can gauge with some accuracy what I’m talking about/commenting on even without the knowledge of the full context. That is because the above sentence is full of content words.

exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

Because of content words, it is relatively easy to glean that I am critiquing an aspect of social media and its value for users. Perhaps an image of a person helplessly scrolling through Instagram or Facebook jumps into frame. If you are someone who’s native language is not English, and you only know a few choice words, you might pull “picture,” “joy,” “social media,” and “viewers” from the sentence, and still (probably) be able to cobble together what I may be talking about.

But if we highlight these words, a very big confusion emerges:

…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

Behold function words. Those little things that hardly seem to exist in the midst of an engaging conversation, a bombastic argument, or the sweet nothings uttered in blushed ears. Function words, via Pennebaker, “[…] are words that connect, shape, and organize content words.” If one reads just the function words (regardless of what their native language might be) what the heck I’m talking about is just that—Huh? The heck are you talking about?

So completely unmemorable are function words it’s amazing that a whole book has been written about them. And though The Secret Life Of Pronouns in itself is not such an amazing book, I was once again reminded of how knowledge, and wisdom, often hides in the cracks.

Yet even with this praise, there is a lot that is unclear in much of the statistical data Pennebaker dishes out.

Pennebaker_portrait
Very nice portrait of James W. Pennebaker, provided by Pinterest – Thank You.

In fairness, Pennebaker acknowledges that the research is still in its infancy—however, along that note, there seems to be a lot of formulating hypotheses and locating data needed to support them after studies and tests have been carried out, also known as p-hacking. Regardless, correlations by those algorithmic machines are fervently being made: women tend to use far more cognitive words and personal pronouns than men do, men tend to use bigger words and more prepositions; when tragedy strikes a nation’s use of the word we skyrockets, when a world leader is about to declare war his/her use of the word I plummets; liars use more verbs and social/emotional words such as she and him, if and any, while truth tellers tend to use more words in general and more self-reference words such as I and me. This all sounds neat-o, but (noted by Pennebaker himself) much of these subjects suffer from a lack of “ground truth” and others seem more to do with the circumstances and environments of individuals rather than the personalities of individuals unto themselves. Sometimes the information contradicts itself, such as in the case of world leaders dropping the word I from their vocabulary during tumultuous times, and research stating the more confident and in control a person feels, the more their use of the word I drops. Are we supposed to draw the conclusion that leaders lodged in conflict are, in fact, more confident and sure of themselves? Such impasses are not discussed, nor it seems even noticed. Much of the data feels cherry-picked, and therefore detached and limp. For a book loaded with tables and charts, it stings of discombobulation and half-finished projects.

There is also the problem of Pennebaker not really delivering on his goal—a window into personality. Can function words tell us if someone is kind or cruel, selfish or generous, neurotic or relaxed? The Secret Life Of Pronouns doesn’t say, but it does say how to utilize function words in finding out whether someone grew up rich or poor, is female or male, or if a person’s relationship is happy or on the rocks. Pennebaker doesn’t seem to think much about how such discoveries and sleuthing technologies could be manipulated by advertising companies and the ilk, or be misused to decide whether someone gets extension on their credit, is let into a prestigious college, lands a dream job, or wins publication in an esteemed journal. Straight into it, the vision of The Secret Life Of Pronouns is severely limited. Though entertaining and interesting, it ceases to have substance or anything really worth chewing on.

But it’s good enough. So give it a read if you’re bored and like sleuthing. Really, who doesn’t like playing detective every once in a while? Ultimately, I enjoyed Pennebaker’s bubbly spirit and gained a little more insight into myself. (Which, I’ve consistently found, is always worth doing.) So, what the heck, I give it a solid C.

Three out of five stars for The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.

Wildwood Dancing: A Romanian Fairy Tale

In a castle, deep in the Romanian wilderness, five sisters have a secret.

From eldest to youngest, sisters Tatiana, Jenica, Paula, Iulia, and little Stela, by way of a hidden door in their bedchamber, depart to another world each and every full moon.

Wildwood-Dancing-by-Kinuko-y-Craft
Beautiful Cover Art by Kinuko Y. Craft – Thank you.

Dressed in their best, the young’uns go dancing. But not with boys—oh no. Oh no not with fellow young boys. These girls go out partying with dwarves and trolls, with fairies and beasts and other magical forest folk. Free-spirited Iulia spins and spins until her face gets red; elegant and beautiful Tatiana sways serenely, her cascade of black hair tilting on her head; bubbly Stela jumps and jigs with her tiny woodland friends; Paula does not dance, but discusses her studies—at a table with robed academics while the music plays—enthusiastically expounding her writings and theories.

And then there’s Jena. Sensible Jena. Responsible, plain-looking, opinionated Jena.

With her best friend Gogu (who so happens to be a frog) she observes more than she dances, watches over more than she joins. Are her sisters safe? Is there trouble nearby? Jena understands the Other Kingdom can be a dangerous place, so she keeps her wits about her, keeps track of the time, keeps tabs on all her siblings and makes certain that everything goes smoothly and that everything is fine.

The girls pay their respects to Ileana, the fairy queen of the wildwood, and then set off again across the Bright Between. On five boats uniquely shaped—swan, wyvern, phoenix, wood duck, and salamander—they return to their bedchamber in the early morning, sleepy eyed and full of new daydreams. Their secret secure, their secret still secret.

But secrets have an animation about them. Like young girls, no matter how hard we try to keep them out of harm’s way and keep them locked up, secrets have a way of sneaking off. In a series of unexpected events, the sisters’ lives change. The wildwood holds secrets all its own, and seeds planted long, long ago start to take root. Jena tries with all her might to maintain the order, to keep the two worlds divided and to keep her sisters safe; but the forest has other plans, and the magic around her and within her is set to fly—no matter what she has to say about it.

Wildwood Dancing_MarillierThe long room we sisters shared had four round windows of colored glass: soft violet, blood-red, midnight-blue, beech-green. Beyond them the full moon was sailing up into the night sky. I put Gogu on a shelf to watch as I took off my working dress and put on my dancing gown, a green one that my frog was particularly fond of. Paula was calmly lighting our small lanterns, to be ready for the journey. […]

“Come on,” Iulia urged. “My feet are itching for dance.”

The first time we had done this, in our earliest days at Piscul Dracului—when I was only six, and Stela was not yet born—Tati and I had been amusing the younger ones by making shadow creatures on the wall: rabbits, dogs, bats. At a moment when all our hands had been raised at once to throw a particular image on the stones, we had found our forest’s hidden world. Whether it had been a chance or gift, we had never been sure.

An excellent YA fairy tale, Wildwood Dancing starts the party early and doesn’t let up. Juliet Marillier (who, according to her bio, sounds just as magical as the books she pens) is skilled in her abilities, deftly weaving enchantment and mystery and bringing to life well-wrought characters and magical scenes. Taking the very popular folk tale of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” Marillier leaves behind its traditional German roots and takes it for a spin out in Romania. A bit of a Rubik’s Cube, the book kicks off right away and doesn’t take unnecessary amounts of pages getting to all the juice: tall, dark, and handsome strangers, danger and intrigue, mythical beings, adventure, wild and sudden emotions, and of course, lots and lots of dancing.

With a handy-dandy glossary in the back and a guide to help with difficult pronunciations, the book feels hale and hearty, and a reader can quickly fall into another world.

Fairy tales are popular in YA right now. Ever since women started getting their hands on them, there’s been an eagerness to flip the script. And why wouldn’t there be? No longer willing to be passive victims in their own stories, women insist on a different kind of tale, a tale that involves autonomy, action, and liberation, the inner narratives of young women and girls at last spilling free.

Wildwood-Dancing-by-Kinuko-y-Craft
More Cover Art by the talented Kinuko Y. Craft – Thank you.

It’s not all good, of course. What reader hasn’t found herself rolling her eyes at overused tropes and ham-fisted scenarios where our heroine shouts, “NOT TODAY, BUCKO!” and kicks comically sexist Evil von Baron Le Pué to the curb while seizing a kiss from the equally preposterous non-sexiest Bad Boy Edward Hot Pants and then using her super powers to blast a sunbeam into the sky to exemplify her extraordinary abilities to overcome all things m-a-n while at the same time riding off into the sunset with one. It can get tiresome, all the mentally ill girls who are secretly psychic or have telekinetic powers, who are not the pretty ones because they are “too skinny” and/or have “wild hair” and are “clever”. It doesn’t fall on deaf ears that YA has problems. But it should also not fall on deaf ears that YA has a lot to offer, and has in fact offered it in abundance. Simply put, perhaps YA has garnered most of its bad reputation over the years on its slow cultural and societal formation into “a girl’s genera”.

So in summary, Wildwood Dancing might be a difficult book to get your son to read. The characters are overwhelmingly female (which can, sadly, be enough of a deterrent) and the tale itself feels traditionally feminine. But books, ultimately, do not have sex nor gender. Wildwood Dancing is a wonderfully told tale about truth, love, and the courage to believe in yourself. It is fun, exciting, and undoubtedly at times titillating (this red blooded woman will admit to some flushed cheeks) and there’s certainly enough fantasy to keep you interested. The sisters are all versatile, flawed, and contain their own desires and dreams. Juliet Marillier does an excellent job of bringing real life struggles to the fore, and just as gracefully guides readers through them, not shunting on painful conflicts and that sometimes human beings don’t get things right; however, with some planning—and some guts—Marillier reminds that we can fix what’s been wronged, and that stumbling is just a part of living.

Read Wildwood Dancing. Why not? Unless you can’t find it. Jump into your boat (your car), sail the Bright Between (your street), get yourself to the Other Kingdom (your local library), and remember, life is a dangerous wildwood.

But, there’s also dancing.

Wildwood-Dancing-by-Kinuko-y-Craft

Four out of Five Stars for Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing.


All images are sections of Kinuko Y. Craft’s truly spectacular cover art. Find more of her artwork at http://www.kycraft.com   

Francine Sterle and the Age Old Question of Art, Worth, and Meaning

Any creative worth some heft of salt knows that when a work is completed the journey is only half done. The work must cease its building phase—the artist must stop dabbing, the writer must stop fiddling, the dancer must end practice and get on with the stage—and the work must then be passed into the arms of the waiting crowd. The creative must relinquish control; it is a sacrificial act as much as it is a power grab, and the creative must contain this dichotomy if the creating is to continue and not stagnate. Any creative that falls into either of these two holes will lose the friction needed to make and originate new work.

Dancer with_red stockings
19th century Parisian artist Edgar Degas’s ‘Dancer with Red Stockings’. Degas is famous for his paintings of ballerinas. Via edgar-degas.org – Thank You.

The conversation will start immediately. If the work has impact (for good or for ill) it will be shared and elaborated upon again and again and again, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years, sometimes for centuries. The creative arc will only end when the masses lower it back into silence. If the work has managed to maintain itself in the physical world, there can be a rebirth. Certain unfortunate works may become perverted, and misused, proceeding forward into the future zombie-like; the creative takes risk every time a work is released and set flown.

Art is the echo of humans in time. The world is full of footprints of us. A book is no lifeless lump of paper, a portrait no mere lonely, empty vessel, but the echoing voice of some individual, who took their two hands and starting clapping fervently into the darkness.

Francine Sterle’s stellar chapbook, Nude in Winter, is a fluent culmination of such echoes, Sterle specifically choosing to reconstruct the voice of paint and painter (sometimes photo and photographer) into the voice of pen and poet. Containing 58 ekphrastic poems, Nude in Winter is both reflection and progression, as image is spun into idea and color into sensation. In each work mulled over, Sterle finds the doorknob, and swings open the closed frames to lay bare the vast landscapes behind them. Interacting with the artworks of known names such as Frida Kahlo, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and William Blake, to the lesser known names of Kiki Smith, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still, Sterle’s poems are alive and breathing, speaking in clear voices, while still maintaining the thin string tied to the artist’s liminal, braced world.

Nude In Winter_SterleI do not know why I come to the window— / white curtains framed by a white wall. / The first breath of morning moves them. / They do not hesitate. / If rain dampens the leaden sill, / they shiver in the washed air, / waver when an animal heat crawls / hour by hour across the yard, / tremble when another summer / crumbles to dust. Some days / they refuse to move as if they hear / crows scolding them from the trees. / Soft as an owl’s downy breast, they allow / the light of dawn into the house / to nest on the floor by the bed. / Behind them, everything fades. / I do not know why I come to the window.

It’s not very often a poetry book sends me whirling through WikiArt.org like a madwoman. Every page turned left my mind pivoting in the wonder: What is she seeing? Where are her eyes? Some art I knew, of course; Giovanni’s Madonna in Prayer and Blake’s Albion Rose are hard not to know. Some artists are so renown, even if the painting itself alludes, the unique style of the elite artist pushes in like a tide, and Monet’s delicate brush, Kahlo’s dreamlike, surrealist spectacles leak in.

And the work can grip you—suddenly. Sterle’s words profess a deep yawning into the body of another. I took it upon myself to read aloud to one of my friends “Rag in Window”, and as the last lines came out I fell into a total sob, bending myself over in the chair, forehead to my thighs and book clutched to my chest, weeping.

Sterle’s work instigated the age old question in me: What is art for? It has often seemed a stupidly worded question for it has seemingly unlimited answers which begs (what I’ve always felt, the more apt question) why ask it at all? Open ended, and circular, I avoid it like the plague, yet always someone’s words, someone’s art, someone’s performance drags me back, drags me back and away and back again, an ebb and flow of life that can’t be discarded, leaving it to become one of the most undying questions of life. Why art? What is art for? What is the artist’s goal? Desired achievement and does it matter? Is the artist a mere secondary element to the grander life of a work, or is it more like the relationship between parent and child? (The endearing mark of its nurture almost inseparable from its identity.)

Balthus_the-guitar-lesson-1934
A cropped image of 20th century Polish-French modern artist Balthus’s disturbing ‘The Guitar Lesson’. Via Wikiart.org – Thank You.

Nude in Winter pokes at these questions, and so blows them open, where Sterle herself then walks into them like rain. With the falling drops, she finds the shapes, the contours, the materials, and she takes these elements and builds her own art: A departed father, an unspoken love, a prodigal son, a girl sexually abused, the metacognition of a sculpture, the doubts of a old man, the morality of observation, the poet debating words at a desk.

Perhaps this is what art is for: Validation of ourselves. Our inner existence revealed, in the careless cascade of peaches from a basket, the green skin of a bearded violinist grown from the pulled sound, color as emotion and memory, our personal pain expressed vividly in some stranger’s rendering… Is this what art’s for? Sterle asks, rising the question up, and the page turns and it falls back in. Her scapes are visceral, her sight imaginative. The laws of interpretation are bent back around and fed to the reader, revealing the age old question yet again, but in new words: Are there laws? What is art for?

Francine Sterle’s chapbook is worth reading. No blunt halfhearted wisdoms are shoved in your face, no chintzy metaphors and tired facsimiles that often weigh down modern day pop-poetry are present. Sterle’s work invites one into a gallery of gasping, singing, whispering beings, each poem displaying another arc, each line carved alive from out the canvas. It is a beautiful book, an intimate book. A book worth reading and a book worth having on your shelf.

henry-ford-hospital_Frida-Kahlo
Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s famous ‘Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed)’. Image via Wikiart.org – Thank You.

Five out of five stars for Francine Sterle’s Nude in Winter.


The featured image is Peaches by the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet. (1883) Available via the public domain. All the artworks (with the exception of Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital) are featured in Francine Sterle’s ekphrastic chapbook, Nude in Winter.