Book Review


Anna Moschovakis
Coffee House Press

by Joseph Houlihan

Poet, novelist, and translator Anna Moschovakis won the International Booker Prize in 2021 for her translation, from the French, of At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. Her latest novel, Participation, also has a lot of “French” in it; possibly written as an echo of her previous novel, Eleanor, or the Rejection of Progress of Love (Coffee House Press, 2018), this new work offers a probing meditation on love. Fortunately, the book’s framing device cuts through any risk of it being overly sentimental.

Participation follows a narrator, E, as she vacillates between the gravity of two reading groups, Love and Anti-Love. E explains: “Anti-Love is not, to be fair, billed as Anti-Love. It’s billed variously as resistance, revolt, revolution. Sometimes it’s billed (tentatively or defiantly) as Self-Love.Love bills itself as itself, eponymous and proud.”

Following the Oulipo tradition of expanding through constraint, Moschovakis employs various experiments, letting the novel unspool through thoughts, fantasies, anecdotes, dialogues, and more. Moschovakis gives her characters from the reading groups letter-names without genders, as well: “This missive earned a single black heart from S, one of the members of Love I’d never met. I jolted when I saw their heart, then I liked it back.” The desire that expressed without gendered language ripples in interesting ways, energizing the description of a prelude to a kiss and dispatches from a live blog in the wake of a disaster. As the book accelerates towards its finish, there is increasing entropy and beautiful irresolution.

Throughout, Participation remains smart, frank, and sexy about its subject: “There is an abundance of emotion—enough years, enough fucks and near-fucks and pseudo-fucks, enough expectations unanswered because unheard or unsaid—and it is that abundance that is known: a partial knowing, as excess is always, paradoxically, partial.” This arch sexiness has the appeal of Marguerite Duras in The Lover or The Ravishing of Lol Stein.

As a poet, Moschovakis has effectively employed and interrogated axioms. She does the same in her fiction, animating the ideas in Participation with language. There is the notion of bodies constituted through exchange—“We absorb such unverifiable facts from conversation, and they become a part of us, they become us”—and she

describes mathematical intuitionism as a metaphor for communication: “Intuitionism is based on the idea that mathematics is a creation of the mind. The truth of a mathematical statement can only be conceived via a mental construction that proves it to be true, and the communication between mathematicians only serves as a means to create the same mental process in different minds.

Of course, everybody does not occupy the same reality, and even as we describe the world, we can never describe the whole world. This tension, and the tension between love and anti-love, participation or non-participation, or how to live whenthere is no good way to live, is the central theme of the novel. This tension as it relates to love and desire is enunciated in ways that lead the reader to ponder what might be a “good enough” love.

Participation does not have quotes in the title, but one might well imagine them there. E is a material girl in a material world; she burns, she desires, and she dreams. Her fragmented transmissions ring a warning bell, and the result is affecting.

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I Need to Tell You

Cathryn Vogeley
WiDo Publishing ($17.95)

Cathryn Vogeley uses three hallmarks of effective storytelling in her memoir, I Need to Tell You: vulnerability, uncertainty, and vivid scenes. Consider the opening paragraphs:

My eyes squeezed shut while the ting of metal instruments broke the silence. As if my chest had lost its elastic, I breathed in short, tight spurts. The ceiling tiles with their tiny holes looked down on me as my chin tilted upward.
Exam gloves snapped; metal wheels moaned across the cold floor.
Dr. Franklin stood from behind the sheet.
“No doubt about it. You’re pregnant.”

Vogeley, unmarried in 1968, discovers she is pregnant after her first year of nursing school. Her boyfriend, Gavin, says he can’t get married—this pregnancy must be kept secret.  Vogeley’s Catholic mother arranges for her to see her priest cousin Edward, to talk about "the problem,” and the pair arrange for her to be admitted to Roselia, a home for unwed mothers.

When Vogeley goes two weeks past her due date, she suggests to another Roselia resident that they jog in the winter courtyard to induce labor. Her description of the gunmetal sky and the thin layer of snow on the ground pull the reader into the frigid scene. We can see her “gripping both edges of my navy wool coat . . . schlumping along the sidewalk, hands under my belly, a bushel basket with a floating watermelon.”

The girls of Roselia are warned not to look at or hold their infants for fear they will want to keep them. But when Vogeley is handed her baby in the taxi back to Roselia, she can’t help but look at her daughter. “Those moments in the cab, less than the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee, were our entire lifetime together.”

As time passes and Vogeley begins to tell her story, she discovers the people in her life are accepting. Her sister shows compassion and love, and her next boyfriend, Jimmy, doesn’t seem to care. The couple are mismatched, but Vogeley’s urge to be married overwhelms her doubts. “Just the designation of ‘Mrs.’ before my name would give me status, announce that someone wanted me, and allow me the right to have a legitimate child,” she states.

Vogeley has two more girls, and she throws herself into being a wife, mother, and homemaker while working as a nurse. But she knows there is something missing in her life. She tells herself she cannot think of her first baby ever again, but the haunting guilt remains. As her children get older and begin separating from her, she feels increasingly alienated from her life, and after hitting a low point, she starts college classes and convinces Jimmy to go to counseling with her. He doesn’t engage, and they divorce.

Vogeley begins to build a new life, first achieving certification as an ostomy nurse, then a master’s degree in nursing. She meets her future husband, Charlie, through a dating service. With him, she finds real love and acceptance of her past, and when she realizes she exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, she begins counseling anew. The therapist suggests she look for her baby, a search that proves long and frustrating. As she moves from the solitude of shame to the loving acceptance of family, Vogeley’s account of the process and her examination of the changing laws on secret adoptions are enlightening.

Throughout I Need to Tell You, questions build: Will she have the baby, will she keep her? Will she look for her daughter, and will she find her? How will she leave the past behind and finally accept herself? While a happy ending isn’t guaranteed, this moving memoir makes all these questions resonate.

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Blaine for the Win

Robbie Couch
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers ($12.99)

by Nick Havey

For children of the 1990s, the 2001 movie Legally Blonde is a runaway favorite. It’s also a great model for a rom com, which YA author Robbie Couch knows—though, in his eyes, the plot could use a little reinvention for young LGBTQ readers. Following the success of his debut, 2021’s The Sky Blues, Couch’s second novel, Blaine for the Win, transports Elle Woods to Chicago, but in this world, she’s a gay teen boy named Blaine Bowers; while Elle followed her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law, Blaine follows his into their high school election.

On the surface, Blaine seems to be thriving. He’s got a great boyfriend, he lives with his favorite aunt, his friends are stellar, and he’s got the best side hustle he could hope for: painting murals. That is, until his boyfriend—a golden child archetype who would be a nightmare to date in real life—dumps him on their anniversary; according to Joey, Blaine is not serious enough for him. Joey is going to be their future president, after all, and he needs a Jackie O on his arm, not a whimsical muralist who showed up to the fanciest restaurant in Chicago covered in paint specks from his latest project.

In a bid to win Joey back, Blaine decides to run for class president. He’s never participated in student government before, but that’s not going to stop him, and his friends are more than happy to help. His best friend Trish launches the campaign with an insightful listening tour, realizing that past student governments have been too focused on themselves and their positions to accomplish much. Blaine (meaning Trish) is going to change that with a brilliant plan to address mental health at their school, a topic in desperate need of attention.

Between Blaine, Trish, and the rest of their friend group, the underdog story becomes the heart of the novel. Blaine flames out after the debate—public speaking isn’t for everyone—but his campaign still has a shot, though when cunning fellow teens throw a wrench in his plans, it looks like the election might be lost after all. Just when Blaine is ready to throw in the towel, Couch does what he does best: writes lovable companion characters who turn everything around for the better.

Teenagers, including the protagonist of this novel, are selfish, fickle creatures. Blaine makes mistakes and does things that should imperil, if not completely cost him, his relationships—but he’s real. And real teenagers aren’t perfect, but when they’re written by Robbie Couch, they are compelling and relatable. As depictions of queer characters become increasingly nuanced in YA fiction, Blaine for the Win will garner readers’ votes.

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Water Has Many Colors

Kiriti Sengupta
Illustrated by Rochishnu Sanyal

Hawakal Publishers

by Malashri Lal

Water, that formless, colorless, life-sustaining essence that pervades our being—how does one inscribe it in poetry? In his new collection, Kiriti Sengupta answers in a series of meditations that flow with an enchanting fluidity. The poems dwell on eternal themes such as home, belonging, relationships, and community, but these appear in ephemeral light as though transcending the ordinary and enticing the reader to follow paths of self-discovery.  

Reading Water Has Many Colors, I was reminded of these evocative lines in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.” Here too, the surface calm of controlled structures rests over a subliminal, surging angst, enlivening a crisp duality in which emotions and experiences are transformative, yet the speaker yearns for more change.

This tenuous hold of troubling dualities appears in various ways under Sengupta’s scrutiny. Understandably, the notion of home is questioned: “Dwelling is a slingshot: more it / draws me in, further I fling it way.” While this suggests a perennial odyssey of sorts, Sengupta offers domestic details with roots in cultural practice: “Ma’s healing touch” and a “tiepin from a fiancée” defy the resolution to unhouse oneself from tethers. Who will pay the cost of losing a sense of belonging? Embedded in these poems are complex discourses on location and dislocation, diaspora and homeland, partitions and fragmentations.  These mega-events are condensed into haunting lines on memory and forgetting. The brief poem “Ma” is stark—“In the kitchen / her bangles / play a carillon”—yet the sound of that music will echo in the parallel memories of readers.

Sometimes memory travels to a collective space, such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919—a space marked by bullet holes on a brick wall and the darkness of a well that engulfed hapless women. Revisiting this traumatic event, Sengupta pins his sight on the incongruous item left by a tourist in “The Bottle,” a pensive commentary on a tragic past now pigeonholed into history. The poems “Hibiscus” and “Nostalgia invoke, respectively, the Marxist writer Sukanta Bhattacharya and the educationist Samantak Das, but here, too, disjunctions creep in that elevate historical observation into a poetry of elegiac force. 

Mythology also gets examined in the pages of Water Has Many Colors, as in the poem “When a Woman Conquers God,” a riff on the Bengali Manasamangal Kavya. In the original story, Manasa, the snake goddess, is both challenged and propitiated by Behula, who wants her dead husband revived after the goddess has destroyed him. Behula succeeds and is upheld as the epitome of wifely devotion, whereas Manasa remains a deity to be feared and propitiated with “the left hand.” Sengupta places this story in the realm of alternative power structures, contrasting ideas of divinity and hierarchies, thereby couching the legend in modern political discourse. Sengupta’s poem “Urvashi” similarly recasts the image of a siren (apsara) figure; Tagore also wrote a lyrical poem about Urvashi, yet in presenting female desire, the famed Nobel Laureate looked towards the domestic ideal, whereas Sengupta’s Behula and Urvashi challenge this, bringing his poems closer to the contemporary idiom of feminist choice. 

From myth to the cinema is not such a long journey, especially when one reads about the film diva Rekha and her makeover from the simple “Bhanurekha”; the poet seems quite spellbound in describing her “mystique” and “luminescence.” The actor, director, and talk show host Simi Grewal, clad in white, is another aspect of Bollywood glamour Sengupta engages; it’s a tale of light, image, sound, and “cut” that poetry can mimic in words.  

From epics and movies to succinct one-liners, Sengupta suits his poetic form to the subject, just as the folk idiom reminds us that water takes shape from the container in which it is held. The series “Bucolic Bengal” picks out contrasts in nature while hinting that the pastoral idyll is merely spectral; lines such as “kites are born of chimeras” and “mien limns the reality” deliberately pitch elusive, expandable images, stretching the reader’s imagination. On the other hand, the series “Monostich” uses the terse one-line stanza to invoke an inwardness. For example: “What if I am mute or loud?” This poem, “Prayer,” gestures towards multiple meanings; the line may suggest the silent intimacy of grace, but could also allude to mass religiosity.

Water Has Many Colors leaves the reader dazzled by the variety of styles and subjects, an effect reinforced by the captivating art of Rochishnu Sanyal. No line is out of place in the poems or the drawings, and an amazing synergy joins each pairing. The book captures the frenzied pace of modernity yet urges a philosophic acceptance through the enduring image of water. Chronology rolls into timelessness, fragments blend into periodic wholeness, and images float like waves washing up on the shores. This is a celebration of life’s plenitude.

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How to Communicate

John Lee Clark
W. W. Norton & Company ($29.95)

by Stephanie Burt                          

If you’re a poet—and if you work hard and make attentive, patient discoveries—you can expand the range of what a poem can do by finding new forms, new sets of moves that your language can make. If you’ve had unusual experience—lived an unusual, lucky, or difficult life, say—you can expand the range of what a poem can show and say by building that experience into your poems. If there’s a group of people like you whose experience isn’t represented in poems—or if it’s not represented often, or particularly well—you can do important political work by representing it. And if you’ve got access to an unusual conjunction of languages, ways to use words and to make yourself understood—say, Thai and Croatian, or Spanish, Catalan, and Cantonese, or the special talk of the Parisian underworld—you might be able to expand the range of what poems can do by translating, adapting, or making truly new work in a target language using what you learned from your source.

John Lee Clark is all four kinds of poet at once. This first book of Clark’s own poems (he edited the anthology Deaf American Poetry, published by Gallaudet University Press in 2009) does not just reflect (whatever that means) his experience as a DeafBlind creator, moving in Deaf and DeafBlind cultures as well as in other literary circles. It also shows new forms, new ways to use English, as in Clark’s slateku, dependent on puns generated by the two-sided slate used in pre-electronic Braille. Clark’s work imports into English new kinds of intimacy, sarcasm, and communal defense, from American Sign Language and from the less common language Protactile, used (as the name implies) by DeafBlind people who communicate via touch.

These kinds of translation reflect Clark’s life in between languages. He considers how to frame his tactile, translated, uncommonly embodied and uncommonly mediated day-to-day so that people like me (nondisabled, non-Deaf) can dive in.  And I want to dive in. He’s writing at once for people like me and to bolster like-minded figures, and he’s funny, angry, inviting, tender, genuine: “I have been filmed and photographed for free,” he writes in a prose poem with pointers to John Clare. “It costs so much to smile…. I would that I were a dragonfly curled up between your finger and your thumb.”

That’s a Clark original. Here’s a sample translation, from the Protactile of Oscar Chacon: “At the base of your forearm, the lumberjack is surprised. Still standing! What’s going on? Rubbing chin.” And here are lines sliced from an elegy in monostichs for the DeafBlind creator Nicholas Saunderson (1682-1739): “He made a calculating machine with strings and pins and called it Palpable Arithmetic…. Go on feel what it says.” This caustically titled volume also covers the near-dissolution of a marriage, Clark’s life as a son and a father, and his early education—it’s got range. It’s got centuries of history. It’s got portraits, too: the teacher “Mrs. Schultz,” for example, who tried and failed to understand “the Clark boy,” and “The Politician,” whose signed faux pas puts John F. Kennedy’s famous jelly-doughnut remark in the shade (I won’t spoil the joke: read the book).

Is it okay to say, of a DeafBlind writer, that his work sounds like nothing else? Because, to this hearing reader, it’s true. Clark hasn’t just put his life into verse and prose poems; he’s felt and manipulated and explored and expanded what poetry in English—in print, to the ear, on the fingertip—can do. He’s got puns, euphonies, wordplays, cleverly arranged syllabics, as in those slateku: “Hollywood / Smoothly wraps / Hollywood / Soothingly warps.” And he’s also funny, sometimes exhausted, and more often exasperated in a way that you might recognize if anyone has ever called you “brave” for attempting to live your daily life: “Let go of my arm. I will not wait / until I’m the last person on the plane.” Or: “Can’t I pick my nose / without it being a miracle?”

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Because I Loved You

Donnaldson Brown
She Writes Press ($18.95)

by Eleanor J. Bader               

Conventional romantic plots constantly tell us that love is the only thing we need to be happy and secure, but reality rarely measures up to that promise. This painful truth is central to Donnaldson Brown’s emotionally resonant first novel, Because I Loved You.

The story opens in Tyler, Texas at the beginning of the 1970s. Leni O’Hare is sixteen when she rescues seventeen-year-old Caleb McGrath’s injured horse, and in short order, the two become inseparable. Both have big dreams: Leni hopes to pursue an art career, and Caleb hopes to study physics at an Ivy League college. But almost from the start, there are conflicts and obstacles, with ever-present reminders of death and war hovering over their union.

For Caleb, there’s a palpable fear of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, something that is hammered home whenever he interacts with his volatile, just-returned older brother. For Leni, raised by a French mom who lost most of her relatives during World War II, the family mantra has always been: “Life is loss. . . . And you go on.” This once-abstract concept becomes real for Leni when her older brother dies while playing football, a sudden tragedy that threatens to upend the O’Hare family’s already-tenuous bonds.    

It also mars Leni and Caleb’s romance. In fact, as they cling to one another, lies, secrets, and silences cast a menacing shadow over their relationship. Several months later, when Leni leaves Tyler without telling anyone where she is going or why, Caleb is left to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. 

Caleb ends up attending Princeton University, but rather than study physics, he is seduced by the world of finance and eventually joins a successful real estate firm in New York City. Fast forward to 1984: Caleb and his fiancée have been invited to a Manhattan art opening where, unbeknownst to Caleb, Leni is exhibiting. Suffice it to say that theirs is a bittersweet reunion. 

The unfolding interpersonal drama takes unpredictable turns, and Brown offers no easy resolutions. Instead, Because I Loved You presents an adult assessment of the limits of love alongside a potent acknowledgment of the power of shared history. The result is an unusual mix of a sweeping, decades-spanning saga and an intimate glimpse into the ways two people sustain platonic love when romantic love becomes untenable.

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The Last Days of Terranova

Manuel Rivas
Translated by Jacob Rogers
Archipelago Books ($20)

by John Kazanjian                 

Manuel Rivas’s The Last Days of Terranova opens with Vicenzo Fontana watching a couple collect barnacles from a wall by the sea. Fontana considers the three of them to be bonded by this shared moment. However, he is a voyeur, removed from them; he admits that he is “witnessing something he shouldn’t, from a place he shouldn’t be.” With this, he states the novel’s thematic foundation: that the yearning to connect with other people can result in unforeseen consequences. In this scene, the man scraping barnacles disappears; Fontana calls for help and later learns the man is wanted by authorities. By inserting himself in the lives of the couple, Fontana has only provided them with trouble. Yet, despite the high stakes involved in becoming intertwined with other people, Fontana continually finds meaning by enriching his own tale with those of others.

Fontana has possessed a life-long curiosity about other people—he sees them as containers of stories. As Fontana narrates, he shares an anthology of experiences he has collected from each person that moves him. The novel shifts between Fontana’s life as he comes of age in and out of his family’s bookstore, and the rich cast of characters that have connected with the shop throughout the decades. The recently doomed bookstore, called Terranova, was founded by his father Amato four years before the beginning of Franco’s regime, and has served as a stage for diverse tales of the human condition. Some of these tales were set on paper, smuggled into the country, and delivered to Terranova. Other stories are less accessible, their full truths hidden in the minds of people who enter the shop.

The most compelling storylines feature Amato, an archaeologist, writer, and celebrated thinker whose mysterious background grows more poignant as the relationship between father and son breaks down, and Fontana’s uncle, Eliseo, who tells fantastic tales that form the backbone of the family’s mythos and cause dissonance in the novel as the line between fiction and reality becomes clearer. Fontana’s own experiences—from his time in an Iron Lung, through his stint in a metal band, to his meeting Garúa, an Argentinian fugitive whose story combines hope, loneliness, and tragedy—provide context for the other characters. Garúa finds sanctuary in Terranova as she is pursued by Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance agents, and Fontana’s evolving relationship with her is a rich aspect of the book, allowing Rivas to explore emotional complexity and resilience:

Garúa looks at the photo. It’s almost impossible not to smile when you look at this picture. It’s that spark. You’d have to put up a somber resistance not to fall under its spell. And she falls, she’s with them. Smiling on the inside.

The Last Days of Terranova is like a bookstore: One is pleasantly overwhelmed by the many rich stories that sit near one another. Each chapter begins in a different era of Fontana’s life, blurring the lines between his ordinary world and the realms in which he gains self-knowledge through his interactions with others. Jacob Rogers’s translation presents a strong narrative voice that serves as the uniting element between sections, moving us through Fontana’s earlier life with the same gravitas as more recent storylines. The text contains nuances of language and tone that communicate Fontana’s vulnerability to nostalgia and his tendency to frame events in ways that both torture and soothe him.

Although this narrative voice moves smoothly throughout the book, eventually employing a dramatic tone shift to propel readers into the novel’s plot-driven conclusion, it is frustrating that we are allowed very few moments of deeper access into the lives of Fontana’s loved ones; there are times when it feels the book would benefit from taking the focus off Fontana and delving further into the stories of the other characters more significantly. Ultimately, however, the author’s restraint is strategic: Rivas leaves it up to readers to fill in the full emotional scope of the novel through the lens of Fontana’s nostalgia. The process of doing so reminds us that though we bear witness to many characters’ stories, the narrative mosaic that Rivas has crafted belongs to one person alone. It’s a poignant achievement that Fontana’s story feels connected to our own after our time with him is finished.

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Two New Translations of Max Jacob's Poetry

The Central Laboratory
Max Jacob

Translated by Alexander Dickow
Wakefield Press ($22.95)

The Dice Cup
Max Jacob

Translated by Ian Seed
Wakefield Press ($19.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan    

With only relatively brief selections of work readily available to Anglophone readers, the French poet Max Jacob, who died of pneumonia in a Nazi internment camp in 1944, has nonetheless long held an exalted status. These new translations of two of Jacob’s major collections should be recognized as welcome and essential: The Dice Cup (1917), Jacob’s unprecedented contribution to the development of the prose poem, and The Central Laboratory (1921), a collection that spans nearly two decades, together encompass most of his early poetic work. As recounted in Roseanna Warren’s enjoyably thorough Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters (W.W. Norton, 2020), this extraordinary flowering was buoyed by Jacob’s friendships with Picasso, Apollinaire, and many others in the Parisian avant-garde—though he was often at odds with his fellow groundbreakers as well, such as his on-again, off-again prose poem rivalry with Pierre Reverdy.  

Born in 1876 into a bourgeois ethnically Jewish family in Brittany, Jacob scorned provincial mediocrity by absconding to Paris. There, he embraced the artistic city life that filled small streets and neighborhood hovels. Later in life, Jacob moved through the echelons of the upper class, mingling with art dealers and other patrons. Inner conflict about his homosexuality may have played a part in his deeply invested conversion to the Catholic faith, though he claimed it was due to a mystical vision. With Jacob’s enthusiasms as constant as his general dissatisfaction, it’s no wonder his poems display the influence of these shifting life experiences, often at a dizzying pace. As translator Alexander Dickow notes in his introduction to The Central Laboratory, “Jacob cannot act as unequivocal role model or poster boy for any particular identity: he is too full of contrasts and contradictions for that”; as a result, his “extraordinary life has long overshadowed his work.”                            

The frenetic shifting throughout The Central Laboratory—from line to line in individual poems (with an abundance of esoteric references and wordplay) and between forms from poem to poem (ballads, nursery rhymes, experimental collage)—continually surprises and challenges the reader. For instance, consider:


Someone’s patched up the azure of my sky
My nuptials had two lions standing by
And then Saint Catherine lifted her blade
To prune my honey-colored shrubs in braids—
Two castles on which little towers dwell—
The little castle tower’s scrofules swell.
It’s all that was left in this capitol
With bits of garden scattered here and there
And we could see your coifs of lace as well
Madame Adamunzipper
The color of kipper
Madame Mirabeau, Madame Mirabelle
Nebuchadnezzar’s mother, truth to tell.
Now sailboats returned to this cathedral
One with gold and the other with coal tar
The third one catching fire carried Abelard
While the sea seemed somewhat vegetal
I write in letters that are capital:
I’ll never be but a novice in art
The novices’ necklaces we wear crowns
The one who’s crowned amounts to he who crowns.                            

Jacob moves freely between sense and nonsense, beautifying the confusing, and at times, he delights in nothing less than the joy of how words sound. Yet, there is also  glorious hubris (“my sky”), cheeky insight (as in the closing claim), and a sparkling intellect throughout, all of which showcase Jacob’s depths as well as wordplay.  

As can be felt in the inventive lines above, Dickow’s translation of the Laboratory is generally quite fine, though there are occasional odd decisions. “Barège n’est pas Baume-les-Dames!” becomes “Bombay is not Ramagundam!”  which is defended in a footnote: “Jacob mentions Barèges, a town in Southwestern France, and Baume-les-Dames, a town in Burgundy. I felt that Indian names with similar sonorities and rhythms might be more evocative for Anglophone readers.” This might hold true for some Anglophone readers, but most would not recognize Ramagundam any more than Baume-les-Dames—and Jacob was naming French locales, after all. Why exoticize the work? In another instance, “La fenêtre: un cigare au coin de l’univers” is rendered as “Window: cigar that dangles from the cosmic lip”—a rather overtly poetic flourish for the clearer “cigar resting on the corner of the universe,” disrupting what would seem the more striking image Jacob perhaps intended of the universe as cosmic ashtray.

Though the prose poems in The Dice Cup might be less formally challenging for today’s readers than the dizzy verses in The Central Laboratory, Ian Seed’s new translations, like Dickow’s, provide an opening for digging deeper into Jacob’s poetics. Dickow leads the way, citing Robert Guiette’s 1976 critical study La Vie de Max Jacob based upon interviews with Jacob in the 1920s, noting how the poet “framed his poetics precisely in terms of ‘disappointment [déception]’” and took triumphant glee in how “the reader was slid from place to place until there was nothing left.” He goes on to describe Jacob’s work overall as “the art of sabotaging readers’ expectations, of producing doubt and disorientation, perhaps even sadness or a slight sense of having been jilted.”  Indeed, given the relative comfort most readers feel when faced with a piece of short prose (as it may contain the hint of a narrative, characters and actions assigned to them, etc.), it is jilting indeed to have none of the comfortable associations of one’s reading experience go as expected. Take this short piece: 

The House of the Guillotined

To Paimpol! You cross the hills in the evening. The roofs of the news houses in evening blue and sea blue. A room at the hotel for so many from the smart set. Now for a life of great pursuits. All these little bladders on the sidewalk come from pretend rabbits: a servant blows them up and we take a shot at them: there is but one true rabbit: he’s old and seated: “Where’s René?” “He puts in an appearance from time to time.” René puts rubber soles on his shoes to act out the role of the old rabbit, and we sit down at the table facing Paimpol, facing the port and the evening hills. There’s a lady who knows the hostess’s secret: “It was in Paimpol last year at this time that . . .” The lady rises, her eyes full of tears. What a scene!”

Of course, Jacob has no intentions of his poem aligning with readerly expectations. Paraphrasing Jacob’s own remarks, Seed relates how “The prose poem ‘transplants’ components of reality into a realm where we can ‘situate’ those components in relation to one another, offering us alternative versions of reality, which in this case is not something fixed and stable, any more than one’s personality is.”

With both collections, the intent is to throw the reader off balance and to have that experience offer delight. Dickow cites a 1907 letter of Jacob’s that draws an interesting contrast: “surprise is a stable state,” he writes, whereas “pleasure is in movement; the spectator must be tossed to and fro; aesthetic emotion is doubt. Doubt is obtainable through the coupling of that which is incompatible (and without producing stable surprise) . . . in poetry, interest is born of doubt between reality and the imagination . . . Doubt, that is art!” None of Jacob’s poems, whether in prose or rhymed verse, are intended to be too easily digestible; he intends to confound. Seed reminds us in a footnote that, “In his Art Poetique, Jacob famously declared, ‘Personality is only a persistent error.’” In his social life, Jacob continually presented a refreshed reimagining of his self to the various scenes through which he swirled. His poetry likewise remains dedicated to the constant reimagining of the world.   

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Laura Walker
Apogee Press ($18.95)

by John Bradley

The King James version of the Book of Psalms is a profound and intimidating text with layers of musicality, history, and spirituality. Most poets would avoid using this imposing work as a source of literary invention. Not so with Laura Walker’s psalmbook, which offers sixty-nine poems, all titled “psalms,” that draw inspiration from the Book of Psalms. Walker manages to preserve a sense of prayer while also reshaping the psalm into something new—a significant literary achievement.

One of the most notable attributes of Walker’s psalms is their fragmented state. They feel like translations from scraps of ancient papyri. Here is “psalm 142” in its entirety:

sound poured round our heads

like trouble

or gravel

The fragmentary nature of the poem is augmented by the use of the lower case, as well as the space between the lines, heightened by the oversize page (the book measures 7.5 x 9 inches). The spacing slows the reader, asks for the poem to be read again, and then asks us to meditate on the resonances.

Another innovation in psalmbook is Walker’s use of the second person. Unlike “Lord” or “God” in the King James Book of Psalms, “you” builds intimacy and uncertainty: “i see you there / or think i do” While this “you” usually seems to be used for a divine presence, at times there’s ambiguity: “i see you lying in the dark,” in “psalm 5,” could be speaking of a human presence. This ambiguity is unresolved in the adjacent lines: “tracing another cliff, another toppled island / on your bedroom wall :”.

Walker brings her psalms into modernity: “listen— / i will talk to you in the morning / by the washing machine.” Here the human need for spirituality is placed in the mundane world of laundry. Walker often blends Biblical and contemporary language. In “psalm 99” (there are poems in psalmbook with the same psalm number, indicating that some of the Biblical psalms inspired more than one poem) we hear both the King James-like language—“your name is a plucked thing in my mouth”—and contemporary language—“perched on a fence with your pant leg rolled up.” Perhaps the “plucked thing” could be a mouth harp. As the psalms continue, however, we encounter something unfamiliar, something surreal:  

perched on a fence with your pant leg rolled up,
holding a flag or an apple, milk-creased creature
against your thigh

No matter what this “milk-creased creature” might be, Walker suggests that the language we use in our daily lives—“your pant leg rolled up” or “holding a flag”—is just as worthy as King James English in creating a prayer.

The cover of psalmbook, showing scraps of ink-inscribed ancient papyri, evokes salvaged pieces of a holy text. It also evokes, as does the text of this book, what survives of Sappho’s poetry. Perhaps this allusion is intentional, though the yearning in Sappho’s poetry is more concerned with earthly love. Yet its fragmentary nature, as in psalmbook, furthers that yearning.

Walker’s psalms will no doubt lead some readers back to the Book of Psalms, and that’s all to the good. But psalmbook stands on its own, steeped in absence and mystery, such as in “psalm 85,” which is all of three words and a punctuation mark: “i remember you :”.

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Tuesdays in Jail

What I Learned Teaching Journaling to Inmates

Tina Welling
New World Library ($17.95)

by George Longenecker                                  

When she volunteered to teach weekly writing workshops at the Teton County Jail in Jackson, Wyoming, Tina Welling had little idea what she was getting into. She had never been in jail or visited anyone in jail.  As metal doors clanked open and shut, guards escorted her to her first class and watched her every move. Yet, before long, she found that a rewarding experience was in store for both her new students and herself.

Welling’s memoir is introspective and practical. A novelist and the author of Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature (New World Library, 2014), Welling brings her writing talent to Tuesdays in Jail, which is beautifully descriptive and fast-paced. She looks at reasons the men there are incarcerated and guides them in self-reflection. She also offers practical advice for others who might want to tutor incarcerated people.

It's not easy for a nature writer to adapt to being inside a bleak prison—the Teton County Jail offers a stark contrast to the natural beauty of Wyoming.  Usually, Welling’s meetings are held in a group circle, overseen by a guard. Occasionally, though, she is locked on one side of a glass partition, with her student confined on the other side:

Each of the five doors needed keys or a code in order to pass through; each was made of thick metal and slammed closed with a deep clang that echoed off the cement block walls.  My stomach tightened with discomfort as each door shut with finality behind me.  I couldn’t find my way out of this place even if I held the ring of keys and the memory of codes.

Though she never feels comfortable in the sterile jail, Welling finds solace in helping her students access hope through writing. She assigns them philosophical and pragmatic prompts: “Choose three . . . characteristics that you’d like to strengthen within yourself, and write them down.”

While Welling knows she can’t fix her students’ pasts, she sees how her classes can affect their wellbeing and mental health—and even their chances of ending up in state prison. She ends up fighting to get the Teton County Sherriff’s Department to make policy changes so that those about to conclude their jail term are not cut off from the communities they’ll soon reenter.

Tuesdays in Jail includes a workbook of fifteen journaling lessons that a prospective volunteer could use for a class with incarcerated people, and throughout the book, Welling reflects on her own life and self-confidence. These reflections, along with non-judgmental sketches of her students, make for a beautifully written memoir that is a must-read for anyone living, working, or thinking of volunteering in prison.    

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