Tag Archives: book review

Review of Susanna Lang’s Travel Notes from the River Styx

Travel Notes from the River Styx -Lang
Travel Notes from the River Styx
Susanna Lang
978-0998215907
(2017 Terrapin Books)
$16

Review by Michael Eddie Anderson

Travel Notes from the River Styx is a carefully crafted study of a soul journey. Although the work is not personal in the narrow sense, it does focus on family. We live through the saga of a dying father, watch a mother giving piano lessons, and meet a son going off to college. But the larger reference is to the human family, including emigrant peoples, their experience of displacement. In “Migration” we hear their voices: “My family came to stay/ but not in one place”. The monk who says “My real country is not a place…” speaks for all those whose identity is less geographic, more relational.

Among the most striking characteristics of Lang’s poetry are its wild leaps. As in all good writing, the metaphysical rests on and arises from the physical. The poem “In the Rearview Mirror” turns our eye to five migrating Sandhill cranes. The birds stand motionless, “the long/knobby legs of their resurrection still”. This is the epiphanic leap, but the setting couldn’t be less so: a traffic jam.

Lang shows us we’ll find splendor and ecstasy in the pedestrian. Yes, these are Travel Notes and we do indeed pole down a mythical river, but as the opening citation from TS Elliot reminds us, in every true journey we “arrive where we started” – we end up at home.

Many unknowns await us before we get there. In the title poem, which opens section three, we’re spelunking in Mammoth Cave, its cold river running under our feet. The cavern’s name refers to its size and seeming endlessness, and in these images, Lang finds powerful metaphors of disjuncture and confusion.

The cave may be made of rock but “the border is porous”. There might be a river but it is “flowing so slowly/it almost isn’t a river”. And those etchings on the walls—they’re “written in candle smoke”. Added to all this indeterminacy is a father’s decline through dementia. The final section, a sentence fragment nine stanzas long, evokes this bewilderment:

…this dream

of drifting, low in the water but never sinking, never

snagging on a fallen branch, never touching the shore

where we walk beside the river, endlessly, our muscles

aching, the boat just out of reach—

And so it ends: abrupt, unsettling. We’ve drifted along the river only to come suddenly to a falls. Out of control, out of options, we find ourselves asking “where/has the ferryman gone, how do we call him?” But isn’t it always this way? Whether on Chicago’s elevated train or Charon’s dark waterway, the one thing we can expect is: “destination unintelligible”.

Some poems give us comfort. In Travel Notes from the River Styx, Susanna Lang gives us more. She’s a wise guide on a dark river every human being must learn to navigate.

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 20, Issue 1.

Michael Eddie Anderson has been an editor at Rhino: the Poetry Journal and now serves on their advisory board. His poetry has appeared in New Verse News, Matter Monthly, Rhino, Pen Woman, the Poet and Artist Chapbook of the Northwest Cultural Council and other journals. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

Susanna LangSusanna Lang’snew collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). Read her poem “Confession” in CPR Volume 20, Issue 1 (April, 2018).

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Jessica Walsh’s How to Break My Neck

How to Break My Neck
How to Break My Neck
Jessica L. Walsh
978-1974585335
(2018, About Editions )
$15, Paper

Review by Melissa Atkinson Mercer

Jessica Walsh’s How to Break My Neck illuminates a world where “sharks were not ill-willed/not at first”, where chairs “rest just this side/of suicide” , where we are all hurtled head-long towards destruction. Ferocious and tireless, this book is an examination of the ways that we—the human we—are erased and blurred and re-written, often by our own actions and inactions. There we go again: “your tongue/throwing knives down your raw throat” while “she [takes] no measures/to prevent repeated injury” and “I am over here/screaming like razor blades on metal,/same as everyone” . After all, “anyone can see that/we are no one’s goal” .

Walsh takes us to that unflinching place where mortality, culpability, and identity collide, where the speaker laments. Indeed, the shes and yous and Is blend and morph as the task of separating one identity from another becomes more and more difficult. We know one self only by the ways we set it against another, and even then, we are constantly forced to re-assess, re-negotiate: “you and me/we depend on context”.

In this light, interactions, even with the self, become fraught with constant danger: we might lose ourselves or we might multiply, we might be unending or unfindable. Nowhere is this danger more prevalent than in “More Like Me”, a poem that anchors themes of blame and selfhood. Here, Walsh discusses German POWs trying to swim to safety through a lake in Michigan:

The worst must have been knowing

they were still and always themselves.

I know the feeling.

I swim all night.

This is a poem filled with war tanks draped in tulle, conflations of enemy and self, and finally, an ominous declaration—one that reveals, yet again, an unsteady and fragmented identity:

There could be more like me
if we aren’t careful.

Poem by poem, this book enacts its own demise, questions its very right to exist. “Only the unrecorded is merciful”, the speaker warns us, a suggestion of futility which echoes again in the self-referential erasure of the final poem’s final line: “were we really poets? Why?”

The answer, of course, precedes the question. If, as we are told, “only wanting lasts”, then want is the book’s true legacy: that furious, frantic want that exists beyond pronouns, beyond the record of any one person or life. We should take heed; we should “be confused/and right/now”.

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 20, Issue 1.

Melissa Atkinson MercerMelissa Atkinson Mercer is the author of After the Miracle Season and the chapbook Storm Was Her Voice (Dancing Girl Press, 2016). Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal and Rust+Moth. She has an MFA from West Virginia University, where she won the Russ MacDonald Creative Writing Award in Poetry. She currently lives in the mountains of North Carolina.

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Repurposing Whiteness in Louisiana’s Swamp Country – Alison Pelegrin’s DIY Recycled Southerness In Water Lines

https://www.amazon.com/Waterlines-Poems-Alison-Pelegrin/dp/0807164496/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515102937&sr=1-1&keywords=Alison+Pelegrin

Review by Anne Babson

White Southerners still inherit privilege, the ugly legacy of the plantation system. Southern whites receive the benefit of the doubt from police officers, welcomes in small-town stores. These things are not yet uniformly guaranteed to people of color in the South, who cling even less securely to rights since November. For some Southern white writers, like Faulkner, consciousness of this heritage is no great problem; rather for them it is Yankee liberal elites who hobbled, in their view, a functional system of racial privilege (for whites, of course) destroyed by the invasion of a foreign (Union) army, and nothing Southern has been quite right since. For other Southern white writers, like Louisiana poet Alison Pelegrin, the onus of that blighted heritage feels not so much like liberal guilt as debris, obstacles in the way of important American discourse, a grim history to acknowledge then repurpose. Such writers refuse racism and traditional notions of boundaries. Faulkner wrote famously, “The Past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” For white writers of the New South like Pelegrin, the past may not be dead, but like a hoop found in meemaw’s attic that might be turned into a picture frame, if it cannot be tossed out, it must serve another function than hegemony. Pelegrin’s book Water Lines wrestles whiteness, acknowledges it, and explores how to bend it into an unoppressive and useful object.

Pelegrin folds her poem into a boat and offers it to the Bogue Falaya, a river with a Cajun/Choctaw name, as she has in other work made origami birds out of KKK recruitment flyers found in her neighborhood:

“How long since fog lifted its net
And released my soul to leap.”

In “Red State Epistle,” she suggests the frustration of Democrats in Republican communities abides in the landscape itself:

“Kudzu smothers with the wings

Of dirty angels. Everything must go –…

I caught a Jesus fish.

I know I’m dreaming
When the boat moves backwards.”

The toxic whiteness permeates religion as well, in Pelegrin’s “Communion with the Rebel Flag.” There, she reappropriates the word “rebel” for art, rather than for states’ rights, and she reflects,

“Am I not
Proud – ambassador between worlds,
Mingling undercover on pontoon boats
among sportsmen with trapper beards.
I’m offended, but I drink their beer
And live in limbo between worlds,
Both everything and nothing
I was taught to be.”

It’s all messy. She writes of swamp water baptisms, hot sauce shrines, voodoo, meth labs, and saints, not just football ones. We find life in her prosody’s murk, a flawed repurposing of ugly old privilege but no denial of its vernacular energy. Since the election, the Klan has stepped up recruitment near the Bogue Falaya, and Southerners like Pelegrin have needed to stand firmer against old hegemony. What can we salvage from this swampy country? Pelegrin finds mystics, penitent sinners bound to sin again, and a fertile ground where everything grows rapidly, even new ways to be white, Southern, and egalitarian at the same time.

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 4.

Anne Babson was nominated for the Pushcart for work in The Haight- Ashbury Literary Journal and Illya’s Honey. Her work has been published in the US, in England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and Turkey.

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