The Lit Report: A Fiction Review Column

The Lit Report: A Fiction Review Column

The State of Kansas by Julianna Spallholz
Reviewed by C. L. Bledsoe, The Lit Reporter

GenPop Books, 2012
ISBN: 9780982359440
Perfect bound, 100 pp., $16

Kansas is a state of mind, a state of being, as much as a physical location for Julianna Spallholz’s characters. There are many meaningful similarities between the real and perceived state, of course, mostly a flatness that stretches to unreachable horizons; likewise, her characters tend to perceive their lives as flat, directionless, and hopeless.

In “Pretend,” Spallholz explores life in this environment: “Pretend that the bathroom floor needs scrubbing,” she begins. Every aspect of this 20-something’s life is something to be “pretended” in this list-style flash piece. “Pretend to look forward to sitcoms. Pretend to look forward to anything,” she says, later, on the same page. Sex, love, spirituality: all are something to be faked. But what is the source of this emptiness; why doesn’t the narrator genuinely enjoy anything?

In “Men,” Spallholz describes a young woman who goes with her boyfriend to visit the boyfriend’s brother “in a bad part of town.” There is a group of men who watch a movie, shirtless, drinking beer from cans. The environment of the room grows increasingly hostile to the woman, aside from the unsavoriness of it in aesthetic terms, as the boyfriend’s brother tries to shock and intimidate the young woman, at one point by pulling a gun on her. The story is an interesting snapshot of gender roles as the men try to conquer this young woman in their strange attempt at a mating ritual. Spallholz has crafted something approaching a horror story.

The title story is about a woman and her daughter who are learning the states. Her daughter says she knows the names, but not where the states go. “I have several copies of a blank map to test myself,” the mother says. “I fill in the states by heart. Yesterday I got all the states but one. The state I forgot was the state of Kansas.” As they discuss the names and placement of the states, the fact of the abstraction of these states becomes apparent; these are just names and spaces on a map. The girl quips that after she learns the states, she “could do the rest of the continent and then the whole hemisphere. Hell, maybe I could do the world!” Her mother reins her in, though. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” she says. In this simple portrait, Spallholz implies something about the limiting nature of some relationships; the mother doesn’t encourage her daughter to push on; she says, instead, to be happy with lesser goals.

“The White Cat” is a story about regret, about the realization that we don’t always live up to our own expectations of ourselves. A woman encounters a dying cat on the side of the road. She pulls over and watches it, in her headlights. Later, she goes to a friend’s party but doesn’t enjoy herself because she’s thinking about the cat, about the fact that she didn’t get out of her car and go to it or try to comfort it in any meaningful way. Partly, this was because she didn’t want to face the uncomfortable-ness of the situation. Partly, it was because she felt it would be a futile act. Here, we’re starting to get to the answer of the question Spallholz raised. If this character had taken advantage of the opportunity to genuinely comfort and bond with the animal, if the character had risen from her own concerns and taken part in the world, would she have been saved … Read the rest

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The Poetry Cheerleader: A Poetry Review Column

The Poetry Cheerleader: A Poetry Review Column

Illinois, My Apologies by Justin Hamm
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, The Poetry Cheerleader

RockSaw Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4507-4865-0
Saddle stapled, 29 pages
[out of print, but CD samples at website]
available for free download at Justin Hamm’s blog

Justin Hamm’s chapbook Illinois, My Apologies (RockSaw Press, 2011) is officially out of print, but I want to cheer it on, anyway. He’s from central Illinois, I’m from central Illinois, and the cornfield on the cover appeals to me. The chapbook came bound with a CD of the poet reading his work and a folded broadside of the poem “The Last Year on the Farm” tucked into the black string tying the book’s saddle-stapled spine. You can hear that poem and the title poem at the website of RockSaw Press, and chapbook is now available for free download at Justin Hamm’s website.  Meanwhile, keep your eye out for a hard copy of Illinois, My Apologies, as it would now be a collector’s item!

The poems here are plainspoken, earnest and elegiac in tone. The title poem opens the book and reveals that this will be an encounter with place, with the cornfields and Midwestern twang of the poet’s upbringing, upon the occasion of his mother’s death.  In this remarkable poem, the speaker has hit a deer with his car, a frightening and disorienting experience, and “[t]he old man [any old man, or the speaker’s father?] stepped out…like a phantasmagoric Walt Whitman” to offer comfort and wisdom:

He placed palm to my forehead
like a holy man
told a beautiful lie about death
and the natural cycle
and to listen to him was
to listen to the landscape itself

The mix of sorrow, nostalgia, regret, and, yes, apology—for leaving—continues throughout the book, though we sense that this sensitive soul indeed had to get away.  In “At Sixteen,” he knows himself as “the black sheep” who

reads Boethius to the spiders
by flashlight
beneath the stairs
weeps for everything
worth weeping for
in a place where weeping
is forbidden

He needs to go where he will meet more souls like himself, so he can do his real and natural work: give voice to the place, since he has indeed listened to the landscape.

I like how, in the lovely poem “The Last Year on the Farm,” there is direct address of a “you” that might be the poet speaking to his own younger self via memory or the poet speaking to his toddler daughter, climbing into her grandfather’s lap, via witnessed moment, “enclosing in your fingers his twisted ones / and straining against the obstinacy of time / to see the same thing he was seeing.” The “obstinacy of time” is change, loss of memory, death, but the yearning to see is compassion, empathy, and love. It is cross-generational.

In the penultimate poem of Illinois, My Apologies, called “The Autobiography, Nearly,” the poet confesses to and forgives himself for “a low period,” since “empathy and compassion / always seem to evaporate” and, of course, to realize this makes him feel bad, makes us all feel bad.

And why not
why not a low period
a murderous period even
when the hurt people inflict
is like an atomic blossom
that explodes into crackling neon
on a regular cycle
but the hope they inspire
only flickers with the rarity
and intensity of a bashful firefly
on the darkest night
of the coldest Midwestern winter

This rings true: the harm we see or do spreads its poison cloud over everything, while the hope only flickers its flimsy light. Nonetheless, the acceptance and sensitivity and … Read the rest