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Where Good Swimmers Drown by Susan Elbe
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, The Poetry Cheerleader
Concrete Wolf Press, 2012
Perfect bound, 38 pp., $10
Where Good Swimmers Drown, by Susan Elbe, is a beautiful and scary chapbook of love poems. It won the 2011 Concrete Wolf chapbook contest, judged by Anita K. Boyle, who said, maintaining the book’s water theme, “While you are immersed in these poems, remember to come up for air.” Indeed, these poems warn that falling in love can be like falling into one of the “bottomless backwoods lakes” of an anonymous, innocuous-looking small town, one’s only keepsake of the affair the “soft weeds braceleting my wrists.”
Dangerous as it is, this wild love “in the slattern, kissing dark” is irresistible. Once you’re in it, Elbe reveals, it’s hard to get out. In “Instinctive Drowning Response,” she shows how “drowning people / are physiologically unable to call for help,” their arms straight out at their sides, their bodies upright, resembling a cross.
I couldn’t kick free
from the beautiful dark
of submersion, the hard
crucifixion of my own
Here, as in other poems, she weaves in various strands of metaphor, as readily available as those water reeds on the edge of the bottomless lake of love. In “Virgo,” she is “a lake silted and flayed / by the moon, // its tin-bitter light smearing me blue / with the junk of metaphor.” Gorgeous! This wonderful self-awareness and expert control of language become the life buoy and rope as we swim along through these poems. We know the poet will rescue us as she rescued herself if we swim too far out.
In “What he kissed in me,” the wild darkness is not water but cave, and the speaker is a bear:
He wanted me mythic and curled into the cave of him,
my claw and fang hooded in dream,
drowsy and myopic.
But I did not go under,
into the sockeye world.
Here, somehow, the cave morphs back into water, with sockeye in it, a salmon that might tempt the bear but also a word that conveys violence like a sock in the eye. But she doesn’t “go under.” She goes wild. And gets out:
What he kissed in me
roused and reared up,
to that flurry [of snow] and beyond. Not sorry,
all night I outran him.
I love that fierce refusal to be “hooded in dream.” It counters the “crucifixion” and “stubborn belief” of the other poem, in which, perhaps, she does drown.
The wonderful humanness of this book lives inside the equally wonderful art of it—its mastery of and versatility with rhyming and free verse, even a rondeau. In “Simple Erotics,” near the end, well after the bear has escaped the cave, she still confesses, “I came to you like deer to salt lick // oh I would be like that again / oh.” Oh, the vulnerability and truth of that!
And in the center of “Dead-Eye Moth,” a poem that weaves images of sewing, reading Braille, music, and ghosts, is another glorious confession of human frailty:
Today again, I loved imperfectly and too well,
failed in what comes easily to others,
the once-wild moth in me
rising to the point of only ample music—
not the whole score.
As someone who frequently fails at what comes easily to others, I connect and identify with the heart of this poem. It makes me glad I can reconsider my failure and imperfection as a kind of generosity, glad that even “remembered snippets” are of an “ample music.” There is ample music in this spare and lovely book. Susan Elbe knows how to sing and when to breathe.
Kathleen Kirk is a writer whose work appears online and in print in Confrontation, Menacing Hedge, Poems & Plays, Poets & Artists, Poetry East, and elsewhere. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks, most recently Nocturnes (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012), and the poetry editor for Escape Into Life. She blogs about poetry, reading, and life at Wait! I Have a Blog?!
Keith Moul's photos have begun appearing widely. He likes to group them by subject matter / theme for multiple treatments of similar avenues of inspiration. He admits to almost no restriction on what appeals and is very prolific, but he wants as much vibrancy as he can achieve, and beauty, although that's in the eye of the beholder. Keith has published poems widely for more than 40 years. Two chapbooks have recently appeared: The Grammar of Minid from Blue & Yellow Dog Press (2010) and Beautiful Agitation from Red Ochre Press (2012). Broken Publications will release a full-length collection of Keith's poems written in response to his photos very soon.
BIO: Johanna DiBiase is a writer living in the mountains of northern New Mexico, where crickets duel for attention in her greenhouse and roaming cows leave paddies at her doorstep like gifts. Johanna's poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in: The Portland Review; SNReview; the Wising Up Press anthology, Through a Glass Darkly; and the anthology, Home Tomorrow (6E Publishing); among others. She edits an online collaborative of Taos, New Mexico writers called Petroglyphs. Johanna recently had a piece selected as Best of Blog Flash Fiction in the San Antonio Current.
Vs. Death Noises by Marcus Pactor
Reviewed by C. L. Bledsoe, The Lit Reporter
Subito Press, 2012
Perfect Bound, 126 pp., $14
The first thing that stands out about Pactor’s collection is his formal experimentation. He uses lists, interviews, and other inventive forms to tell his stories. He opens with “The Archived Steve,” a story in which the narrator tries to piece together the life and motivations of his departed friend, Steve, and to challenge the opinion of the pathologist who examined Steve’s remains and declared him “Common.” The conceit of the story is that it is an analysis of various notes left by Steve, scribbled on everything from receipts to his actual blog. These notes, often fragmentary, help us to understand Steve and his death, mostly through the commentary given on him and his notes. Steve mused on everything from his lust-life to his political ideas. It’s an interesting, well-written story, and compelling because Pactor is touching on something common for all of us; when each of us dies, will there be someone interested enough in us to piece together something like an analysis? Will we be remembered? Or will we be written off as “common” and forgettable?
“String Theory of Mistakes” plays with the idea of serendipity and how seemingly random actions lead to unexpected results; in this case, how drinking cheap wine at a pool leads to a bad relationship. “How Is a Moon?” is a character study of “Classic,” a college girl whom the narrator, another college girl, partially admires and partially hates. Classic (a nickname) is promiscuous, not just sexually but philosophically; she refuses to live by the normal standards of others. Classic’s roommates try to categorize her but can’t; she doesn’t make sense to them, just like the story’s title (which comes from a text Classic sent in response to a jilted lover who didn’t understand how Classic could forsake his emotional advances). Pactor avoids the easy morality many would expect from a story like this by having his narrator realize that Classic’s true problem isn’t her lack of reverence for social mores, but rather the impulse that drives her to disregard these mores:
Classic, we thought, starred in stories destined to end badly. But now that I know most stories end badly because they must end, I can pretend something else. Like: her body was never dumped in a ditch. She’s not a used-up crack-whore porn star. She’s waiting tables out west, maybe Nevada. She can still find pleasure in a book and, in the evenings, provoke men to fight. She can laugh at their promises. Whenever she wants, she can pack her bags.
“Sharkey Dreams” is a more straightforward story about a guy who’s down on his luck and takes things too far. Ostensibly, it’s a story about an armed robbery, but through the eyes of the narrator, we see that there are worse fates than hitting bottom, namely to still be falling.
“Spell Compendium” is one of the more structurally experimental pieces. In it, Pactor lists magical spells with brief descriptions of their uses. Using this technique, he develops a story of a down-and-out character, a homeless man who uses his charm and, apparently, magic, to make his way. But he keeps making the same bad choices that brought him to his current situation.
A common theme in Pactor’s stories is suffering, whether it be emotional suffering, psychological suffering, or more class-related. His characters are mostly lower class, economically, and not that interested in moving up. Pactor’s prose tends to be straightforward and clean. It’s a quiet book, light on big-budget explosions, but Pactor gets at the humanity of his characters gracefully. The Death Noises he references in the title are so often louder than life, itself. Pactor is trying to overturn that, to focus on the living instead.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available here. His story, "Leaving the Garden," was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South's Million Writer's Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. His nonfiction piece “Thesis” was nominated for 2012 Best of the Net. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.
The Body Is a Little Gilded Cage
by Kristina Marie Darling
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk
Read the review here
New Artists Added to the Galleries,
The Prick of the Spindle online art galleries feature standing exhibits from more than 30 artists. Visit them here.