Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Review:

 

Sujash Purna, Biriyani, The Poets Haven Author Series, #46,  Massillon, Ohio, July, 2018, 36pp.

Holly Day, Into the Cracks, Golden Antelope Press, Kirksville, MO, 2019, 55 pp.

Michael Onofrey, Sightseeing, Clash Books, 2019, 107pp.

Larry D. Thomas, In a Field of Cotton: Mississippi River Delta Poems (Photographs by Jeffrey C. Alfier) Blue Horse Press, Redondo Beach, CA, 2019, 45pp.

"Biriyani" by Sujash Purna

Sujash Purna, Biriyani, The Poets Haven Author Series, #46,  Massillon, Ohio, July, 2018, 36pp.

That Sujash Purna should already have had published in 2018 a chapbook of poems in the U.S. is impressive by itself, since just five years before he was still living at home in Bangladesh with relatively little knowledge or command of the English language.  Still, the poems in Biriyani are not just fine work for a young, recent immigrant; they stand up as poems any discerning reader will recognize as the achievement of a writer in sure command of his art.

Of course, this is not to say that Sujash Purna’s immigrant experiences as well as his memories of his homeland do not play a significant role in his work.  The title of the chapbook, “Biriyani,” which is also the name of the work’s opening poem, refers to a popular rice and meat dish of the Indian subcontinent, though the poem is actually a narrative about the poet’s father and Purna’s first insights into the constant threat of loss: “That’s the night I realized how mysterious people can be/ when we don’t hear back from them.”  In “Biriyani” the father reappears after a short absence due to a storm, but this poem perhaps anticipates the writer’s own mysterious journeys ahead.

One of the quirks in that journey is that Purna, familiar with the large, crowded city of Dhaka, came to America as a student to a small, Midwestern town, Kirksville, MO, rather than a big city like New York or even St. Louis.  And so it is that many of the chapbook’s poems concern not only trying to navigate English or America, but also the isolation and complacent homogeneity one often encounters in small town middle America.  In “News From Kirksville,” a relationship poem is back-dropped by the speaker’s attempts to deal with the snow and cold one never encounters in Dhaka (where it rarely even gets to as low as 60 degrees) and the irony of the one arts center in town having recently burned to the ground: “Red bricks baring souls/ in charcoals and languages that were once found/ in the paintings, that are now lost in the ashes.”  This foreign element of cold  and isolation appears again in “Snow Day Nobody”: “My first snow day in the U.S./ A lonely couch playing with shadows of bare branches/ Nobody around in a half mile distance.”  

Another kind of threatening weather comes up in “A Tornado Watch and Here I Am,” in which the poet, who learned to be afraid of tornados as “a child in front of the TV,” now has to actually survive one hitting Kirksville.  This fine poem has a particularly strong ending, the compelling images of the storm’s power made ironic by the sun’s seemingly cold response to the wreckage: “Sun is a man of flames, he invited me to his palace/ He told me that it’s not that he doesn’t feel sorry./ He does./ It’s his way to tell he sees.”

One of the most complicated poems in the collection may be, “Ides of March, 2017,” which mixes images of betrayal with accommodations made from living in America, an America where the non-white speaker worries the natives will “Beat me for my skin/ And probably deport me…/To the land I can’t call home/ Anymore.”  The poet speaks for all immigrants caught in the liminal space where not being able to feel fully part of either the place you came from or the place you are, somehow makes you feel both betrayer and betrayed: “From Asia to America/ My love for a country that is not mine/ Is Caesar’s blood on this day.”

Sujash Purna’s poems are not solely about immigration crises.  “Walking in the Rain Drunk,” is a tour-de-force of booze-inspired imagery.  In the second stanza alone one finds gems like: “They were throwing light at each other/ like newly-weds on their wedding day,” or the concluding image, which finds the speaker’s jeans soaked to the ankles, while he yet maintains “faith in the water./ I kept walking on it, jig-jagging my way/ through the flashlights of the fairies.”

Finally, in “Know Nothing Pizza Topping,” the book’s final poem, Purna brings us poignant humor starting with an “Indian guy” asking “What is pepperoni made of?” and the speaker’s refusal to answer so a pizza slice would not “be wasted.”  Pizza is almost an extended metaphor of the homogenization of the immigrant experience itself, since the initial dish, brought to America by Italian immigrants, bears only faint resemblance, in its Midwestern chain existence and proliferation across America.  And so it is apt that this question of a questionable meat brings the writer to more serious questions about losing one’s religion and culture in what America demands of its newcomers.  Ironically, the poet shuts down in this last lyric, refusing to answer not only the other immigrant’s question, but refusing to answer any questions at all that would make him have to face unhappy truths: “I know no answers to these questions./ I know nothing.”   To this conclusion I say, don’t believe him.  Sujash Purna shows throughout “Biriyani” that he knows plenty and is learning more every day.  The insights and images that suffuse his work are just the beginning of what may well become an important poetic career.

 

 

Holly Day, Into the Cracks, Golden Antelope Press, Kirksville, MO, 2019, 55 pp.

Holly Day’s poems, some of which we have been lucky enough to have published in Green Hills Literary Lantern over the last decade, are difficult to categorize or classify.  Sometimes the poems are angry, sometimes they are funny, sometimes they are both things at once.  There is often a persona who is trying to keep it together and using the poem itself as a means towards that attempt.  Along the way there is much to admire in terms of the lyricism and truth delivered, though it’s never an easy ride.  In reading through Day’s most recent book, Into the Cracks, I note that she has perfected this art of writing tightly controlled and effective lyric poems dealing with a person who is often on the edge of losing control.

In the very first poem “At the Stop” we meet a persona who has let her imagination loose enough to consider that a mother waiting for her child to exit the school bus, even as the persona herself is, may be dead in her car rather than just napping for a moment.  The poem’s tonality is, I’d say, calmly hysterical, and to further the oxymoron, it’s hysterical in both senses- making way too much out of nothing, while at the same time being darkly humorous or at least sarcastic.  

and how wonderful would that be, I think,

as I see the woman straighten up and

unlock the doors of her car with a noisy “click”

to be able to claim

to be such a devoted mother

that even though you knew something was really, really wrong

that you really should go to the doctor instead

you still got in your car and drove to the bus stop

just to wait for your little girl to come home.

 

This first poem introduces a question that runs throughout the book- what level of devotion does a mother owe to her child, and at what cost.  In “When They Go” a woman laments that her young children already no longer regard her as a “sanctuary/ a bulwark against precocious mystery and frustration.”  In “The Daughter Who Left” the mother talks about an “unhappy five year old,” with that unhappiness a “harbinger to the years/ of dead silence ahead.”   The mother persona in these poems looks back sometimes on her own childhood and remembers when  she first noticed her mind beginning to “slip,” her mother only suggesting to find ways “to hide my problem,” her husband insisting: “you can’t do this/ remember you’re a mother/ we’re all depending on you.”  This woman  has suffered so much trying to keep it together that she sees “some meadow-surrounded provincial madhouse” as a  dream outcome for her compared to being “trapped in domestic bliss,” even as she ruefully recognizes that the madhouse is not an option for the likes of her: “I realized real people/ don’t get that kind of break.”  Throughout these mother poems Day reminds me most of another writer I admire a lot, the Brazilian fiction writer Clarice Lispector, who in one of her greatest short stories, “Love,” presents a character, who, much like Day’s fully realizes the conscious effort it takes to hold onto normalcy, and what we give up when we make the choice to stay “trapped in domestic bliss.”  I think Day’s mother would understand better than most readers why the character Laura in that Lispector story begins to unravel when she sees a “blind man chewing gum” even as in Day’s final poem “Frog Princesses” the persona can appreciate her young daughter’s innocence and try to help maintain it, even as she knows that daughter is seeing “all the magical things/ I’m missing.”

There are lots of single poems in the collection that don’t as readily find their ways into patterns but are still remarkable in their own rights.  One very short poem, “Happily” is a quirky, angry and funny poem at once, describing a typewriter that “lies dead in the corner” its keys scattered “like a mouthful of angry teeth,” as its letters spell out “screaming/ ‘hit me again you/ qwerty motherfucker.’”  In “Bloodlines” a homeowner worries that her maple tree may hate her for keeping it from its friends and for pruning it when necessary and she worries it might be “aiming for me and my children/ in an act of retaliation so unexpected and sly/ it can’t possibly be blamed.”  The reader has to wonder if he is supposed to laugh, shake his head or worry about the level of this speaker’s paranoia.  Then of course he remembers it is “just” a poem, but that just makes it all the more challenging to fathom.

Holly Day’s poems will always challenge and surprise and if they entertain it’s often the way driving too fast or a scary movie may.  Day further insists that once she leaves this earth she isn’t coming back; she tells us in “The Last Note” to “Leave no/ spirit bells by the window for me to ring/ do not look for my face in the shadowed corners/ reflected in mirrors…. don’t look for me/ for I won’t be there.”  Luckily for us, Holly Day is here, in these poems, and though she predicts in one of her titles that “Foundations Will Crumble,” she also insists in that same poem that no amount of routine (“ I fold laundry, cook dinner/ straighten the same damn pillows again and again”) will undo her poetic talent, her need to write to us about the dark miracles of the commonplace that she of all people may best understand.  She writes to assure “the few people/ who still remember me/ that I’m still here.”

 

 Interview with Michael Onofrey, Author of Sightseeing

Michael Onofrey, Sightseeing, Clash Books, 2019, 107pp.

 

To say that Michael Onofrey’s Sightseeing is an artful and literary book is itself a play on words, since the art collection at the Orsay museum in Paris is central to the novella’s plot and since the questions one might ask about some of the more infamous paintings hanging there  (and most particularly Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World”) can also be asked of Onofrey’s fiction itself: are they high art or soft pornography and is it useful or edifying to make such distinctions?  And how much does the placement of creative work with overt sexual content in a respected museum or with a literary press help to determine how a person will respond to or respect the work in question?  These are not questions I seek to impose on Onofrey’s work, but rather questions the characters themselves discuss often within the confines of Sightseeing.

The novella, in its presentations of odd and sometimes borderline depraved behavior by non-natives adrift in Paris, reminds me of one of my favorite challenging novels, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. However, in its offering of a mystery the unraveling of which might leave readers of more conventional mysteries dissatisfied, it more resembles one of Cortázar’s lesser works, The Winners.  The plot is fairly simple: Wayne, an American tourist in his late thirties, is approached by an attractive and mysterious woman some years younger, who seems North American but speaks flawless French.  She won’t give her real name, but chooses Diane for convenience’s sake, and she essentially propositions Wayne to begin a relationship with her which will include staying together at a hotel, traveling around Paris together and becoming intimate.  This intimacy will be controlled and predicated by an immersion into some of the more erotic paintings they both saw at the Orsay museum; Diane has postcard versions of the paintings always at the ready.  Wayne seems befuddled by Diane’s strange behavior, but unwilling to miss the opportunity of sex with a beautiful stranger.

The prose is skilled, spare and cinematic, as in this excerpt: “Diane picks up a green olive and puts it in her mouth.  Wayne’s view has moved from the postcard to Diane’s face.  He watches as she shreds the olive of its oily meat while keeping her mouth closed cheeks and jaw muscles working.”  Throughout the time the two spend eating, exploring Paris, discussing art and having sexual encounters inspired by that art, Diane is always fully in control.  For example, after Diane delivers a soliloquy over whether Courbet’s famous painting focused on female genitalia, “The Origin of the World,” is considered high art mostly because it resides in “one of the most prestigious museums in the world,” or is pornographic because of what it depicts, the reader is told this very speech, created a “new scene… and the way Wayne picks up his glass of wine is part of the new scene too, for Diane has willed it.”

While Wayne finds Diane sexy and consistently exciting, he also is incapable of figuring her out and frequently alarmed when she speaks of having to kill someone she claims is following them, or, even near the end of the book when he asks her, not really facetiously, whether she has planted a bomb in his suitcase.   Wayne is consistently unsettled by Diane (whose chosen name, of course, suggests the goddess Diana, which should make Wayne all the more unsettled), but perhaps Diane is thereby bringing this tourist approaching middle age just what he needs, since as Emerson once said: “People wish to be settled; it is only so far as they are unsettled that there is any hope for them.”  Of course, I’m not confident that Emerson would appreciate Diane’s style, nor will some readers approve of Wayne’s behavior either.  Still, for anyone who wants to read a quirky, borderline kinky story set in Paris and centered on themes of art and sexuality, this book will be a good match.  Though some might question why Wayne would be willing to put himself so much at risk with such a mysterious stranger, such a potential femme fatale as Diane, Onofrey convinces us by the very allure of her character and of his writing, that Wayne is probably only one of many who might be willing to take that risk.   

 

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Larry D. Thomas, In a Field of Cotton: Mississippi River Delta Poems (Photographs by Jeffrey C. Alfier) Blue Horse Press, Redondo Beach, CA, 2019, 45pp.

 

Larry D. Thomas, the 2008 Texas Poet Laureate and author of eleven full length books of poetry and twenty-two books overall, fashions In a Field of Cotton as homage to his connections and sympathies for the places and people that make up the Mississippi River Delta.  Eleven of the twenty one poems are paired with photos from around the region by Jeffrey C. Alfier; each artfully matches the mood and tone of the poems themselves.

The chapbook is divided into three main parts: I: “Staring Down the Dark”; II: “A White Cloud So Close to the Ground”; III:” Aching For Tone,” plus a one-poem epilogue, “Cotton.”   The poems from the first section seem to be varied in their approach to Delta topics, whereas the second section deals a lot with cotton and the people who have labored in its fields (Thomas tells us in his introduction that all four of his grandparents, “worked their entire lives as tenant cotton farmers,” and that his parents also “hand-picked cotton into their late twenties” until his father found work at a gas station.) The third section focuses a lot on blues and gospel music and its connection to the Delta.  In each section, Thomas does not settle for stereotype or sentimentality; instead, the poems, while very much in sympathy with the often exploited working man and woman, offer an unflinching kind of modern-day Naturalism in their attitude towards nature and life.

 The very first poem in the collection, “Chilly in the Silvery Fog,” extends the negative associations many people have with snakes by offering readers the image of an albino python the poet saw around the neck of a man at the New Orleans Voodoo Museum alongside a view of the mighty Mississippi River itself a “giant brown python/… wearing down/ the levee, shining and tumescent/ with its meal of mice and men.”  Two companion poems in the chapbook’s first section “Boar,” and “Sow” give as unsentimental a picture of pigs as is possible, since in both the large animals are presented as cannibals, the boar having eaten his own children and the sow dining on a boar who fatally injured himself trying “to straddle her fabulous girth…. She dined on his carcass/ for days, grunting in the shade.”  With this savagery in the very domestic animals Delta folks count on for their own food, we cannot be surprised by a poem about “Baby Ruth,” a woman “conceived by rape” who can only survive into adulthood by working as a church’s cleaning lady, or workers stuck in “shotgun shacks,” who must labor hard hours for “bags of beans and rice,” in the poem “Hard Wine.” 

Section II’s poems aren’t all about the cotton fields and the people who lose their lives within them, but the fields certainly are the predominant image and culprit of “A White Cloud So Close to the Ground.”   In “Hard Lines” a man works the fields days into night, thinking of his wife, who is “all/ he’ll ever know of softness in the world.”  In “Cotton” the workers have to do so much picking that they dream of cotton in their sleep.  And in the final poem of the section “The Wake” a young man has died in the cotton fields from a snake bite and the women in the shotgun shacks mourn for him as they prepare his body for burial, but also for themselves, and their relentless lives of labor and pain, as they await to descend “one at a time/ the unforgiving rungs of death.”   Time and again, then, Thomas allows our sympathy to find its place not from any consoling words of his writing, but from our understanding and insight into what he portrays with careful and honest skill.

Thomas’s love for Delta music comes out strongly in the book’s third section, though we don’t get to visit mainstream America’s version of the blues or gospel, but rather  in “Pearl’s Cotton Club,” “Juke Joint,” and “Lightnin’” we learn of blues singers and venues that are far more obscure and might otherwise be forgotten.  In the final poem of the section “Sweet Chariot,” the title’s nod to a famous gospel song gives context to the poem’s character, an old man in a nursing home bed, whose “fingertips are calloused/ from countless hours/ of strumming the baling wire/ of cigar box guitars,” and who kicks off his cotton sheets, to find himself in his death throes in a “field of cotton/ ready for harvest.”  The cotton fields then are inescapable, though Thomas realizes how much the   blues and gospel represent  the attempt to transcend that painful reality of share cropping and shotgun shacks.  After reading, “In a Field of Cotton,” no one who pays attention to the artistry in these poems will ever wear their cotton clothing or listen to their blues or jazz collections in the same way they did before.

 

Joe Benevento, poetry editor for GHLL and Professor of English at Truman State University, has published thirteen books, which include four novels, a book of short stories and eight books of poetry. His most recent volume is the poetry chapbook Playground out this year with Unsolicited Press.