REVIEW: Beautiful Zero by Jennifer Willoughby



by Heather Lang

Do you remember the first time that you played pin the tail on the donkey? I do. I was blindfolded and had to trust my guide, my spinner, who twirled me around until I barely knew the ground from the ceiling, much less the location of that construction-paper donkey. It’s interesting what we can notice during these disorienting experiences. This was the moment that I first observed the soft-floral perfume of my mother’s best friend, and I discovered that my elementary-school crush giggled like Alvin, the chipmunk. I was the “lucky” one who could peek beneath my hand-towel blindfold, but I was disappointed to find that no matter how far back I tilted my head, I could only see my light-up high tops and the patch of chocolate-brown carpet beneath them. I remember hoping that the birthday cake would be vanilla.

These are the types of memories that come to mind as I read Jennifer Willoughby’s Beautiful Zero. In this debut poetry collection, Willoughby writes about all-of-the-things, or so it seems, but she does not write about pin the tail on the donkey. Rather, these poems remind me of this children’s game as they disorient me. The moment that we think we might have our feet on solid ground, she grabs us by the figurative shoulders and forces us in another direction, and it is through this disorientation that the poet can deconstruct and then reconstruct the world around us. We stumble our way through the collection gaining an appreciation for these new meanings and these deeper connections.

Beautiful Zero is a book of seemingly, but not actually, reckless juxtapositions, and this constant allows the reader to give herself over to the random sights, sounds, and feelings that are deliberately splattered throughout the collection. The title of the opening poem, “Come Close Then Back Away,” sets the tone for these connections and contrasts. Mid poem, for example, Willoughby writes, “My knee-socks nestle at my feet. / Then we create an adult situation.” The line containing these knee-socks, a clothing accessory that reminds me of my grade-school uniform, is pressed up against the more scandalous sentence, “Then we create an adult situation.” Despite the youthful tenor being pushed against a much more grownup matter, the pieces are glued together. They are not random because, combined, the lines suggests pre-coital clothing loss. With Willoughby as our guide, however, we’ll never head in one direction for more than a moment, oftentimes one line, and this is a great pleasure of Beautiful Zero. The poem moves on to the “record player [that] is skipping in the distance,” “a column of oxygen,” and trees which treat the speaker “like fire.” Within the context of the poem, together it all somehow makes sense.

Another part of Beautiful Zero’s disorientation tactic is relabeling. In “Do Not Be Broken By The Day,” Willoughby writes:

Take it from me, Caroline, a crisis of faith
is not as interesting as a dead pigeon
in the cistern after a long winter.
The world doesn’t want to see you
on your knees for more than a minute
when it could be inspecting a music
box that knew how to fly.

Although the poet does not literally state that this being “on your knees” is an act of prayer, the “faith” within the first line lends this suggestion. There are the more violent connotations of this image, as well. The command, “take it,” even within the context of giving advice, quietly hints at a violence, maybe even a sexual violence, as I ponder the image of a woman on her knees. This act of being “on your knees,” something that could clearly represent one thing, prayer; or another, a fall; or another, a sexual act, might be ever-so-subtly redefined each time that we read this complex and ambitious poem.

Another example of this relabeling, a literary device of sorts, falls within these same lines. Willoughby redefines the “dead pigeon” as a “music / box that knew how to fly.” Certainly, this sheds a new light on the pigeon, a species of bird that many consider to be an urban pest. As these lines are all tangled up within sentiments of prayer and brokenness, a hope for the rebirth of even the most shattered and downtrodden hearts comes to fruition. If this dirty creature might have been something so delicate and lovely as a music box, surely we can find hope in and for ourselves, as well.

Within the middle of the fifty-one-page collection, the reader will find ten poems titled “Kaiser Variation” followed by a number, 1 through 10. Each of these poems is set within Kaiser Permanente, but each one tackles a different ailment, sometimes literally. In “Kaiser Variations 3,” Willoughby employs an extended metaphor as she writes, “It was the fourth quarter of the Badger-Buckeye / game and I smashed the neutrality rule eleven / times in the psych ward at Kaiser Permanente.” Using humor, the poet disorients us, as “Vivian,” a member of the counseling session, is “defeated by a group hug.” The counselor says that the “speaking is easy but the feeling / is hard,” and the poem, as well as the football metaphor, continues:

I was stuck in throes of accuracy, unplugging
my childhood of unimproved love. Man down!
Man down on the field, Bucky oompa’s a cute
tuba player […]

This blend of tragedy, as the speaker contemplates how “emotions were cocaine,” with comedy, like the flirtatious badger mascot, distances the psych ward scene from its gravid reality. This gift of humor allows us to more fully contemplate these important narratives because we’re less likely to simply turn away. Moreover, the illness changes within each Kaiser variation, so we’re never forced to linger on any one tragedy for too long. This is a kindness, one that allows the reader to embrace the critical catastrophes, such as both the literal and the figurative broken hearts, of Beautiful Zero.

Beautiful Zero is strange, and it is important. If I had to liken this collection of poetry to a children’s game, I might suggest pin the tail on the unicorn, for its magic, or pin the tail on the mermaid, for its nod toward humanity. More likely, however, I’d hope that we might choose some bizarre-yet-real-life creature, perhaps a species that we have yet to discover. And, when the time comes to look for this striking new beast, I would only hope that we might find a guide who is as gracious and as wise as Milkweed Editions’ new poet, Jennifer Willoughby.

Milkweed Editions (2015): $16.00 

Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming in diode, Pleiades, The Normal School, and Whiskey Island among other publications. Recently, she was awarded the Spain 2015 Murphy Writing Scholarship and the Fairleigh Dickinson University Baumeister Award. Heather, an FDU MFA graduate, is an editor for both The Literary Review and Petite Hound Press, and she will serve as an AWP16 moderator/panelist.

REVIEW: Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, ed. Edited by Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov


by Dennis James Sweeney

As the word “hybrid” comes into more frequent literary use, it has become important to figure out what the term means for contemporary writing. Without such attempts at definition, the term stands the chance of becoming a coverall applied to any and every work of literature that defies genre boundaries. Relatively speaking, this result would not be disastrous; it would, however, lead ideas of genre (primarily the categories fiction/poetry/nonfiction/drama) to become even more firmly entrenched while what falls between those categories remains amorphous, ephemeral, only vaguely “hybrid.”

Rose Metal Press’s new anthology, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, edited by Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov, works against that flattening of the term in two ways. In her preface, Sulak does the necessary work of disassembling the idea of genre, noting that genres are merely “a critical mass of reproducible structural patterns,” and, more interestingly, that the original source of literature was itself “hybrid,” the distinctions between genres having arisen only when they became politically and culturally useful. She goes on to acknowledges the inherent contradiction in labeling writing that transcends labels; as Eileen Myles put it in a personal email to Sulak, “It seems old fashioned to coin a term and worse to stick to it to describe a new diasporic state in which all genres are inadequate and fail.”

But the real work of the anthology occurs in the division of its creative pieces into eight sections: lyric essay, epistolary, poetic memoir, prose poetry, performative, short-form essay, flash fiction, and pictures made of words (i.e., writing that uses or consists of graphic elements). Each category features excerpts of five or six authors’ hybrid writing, preceded by an essay by the author on their own work. Sulak makes sure to note that these categories aren’t meant to be definitive in any way; instead, they’re to serve as “a place to start when we gather to examine the energies that are released when various genre fields are used and combined.” This is the second way the anthology works to enrich the term “hybrid”: by distinguishing between and examining some of its many manifestations.

It seems to me that this promise is fulfilled more in the creative excerpts gathered in the anthology than by the craft essays that precede them. Julie Carr blurs appropriation and prose poetry in her extremely topical 100 Notes on Violence. An excerpt from Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker’s excellent Home/Birth puts both collaborative writing and a mix of political and poetic goals on display. Khadijah Queen’s truly strange verse play “Non-Sequitur” takes the dramatic form to its limit in order to encourage “more awareness of (unconscious or conscious) participatory roles we all may take on in our own lives.” And Craig Santos Perez uses the unique layout of his writing on the page both to depict and to work against the violence done to his home’s traditional storytelling techniques by colonialism. The range of forms across the book is truly impressive; the diversity of its entries alone recommends this anthology.

But the majority of the essays that accompany these excerpts seemed to focus less on “the energies that are released” by particular hybrid forms and more on the energies that generate such forms. That is, the essays seem to focus more on what it is like to write hybrid work than what it is like to read it. This is reflected in their order: essay first, then creative work. Marcela Sulak even emphasizes the importance of the process of creation to hybrid writing in her preface: “Because authorial intent is such a large factor in determining hybrid affiliation…our representative authors are given nearly as much space for their artistic statements as they are for their art.” I worry that such a claim, and particularly the identification of the essays as “artistic statements,” tends toward a somewhat insular representation of hybridity.

For me, the anthology’s best essays were those that sought to explain artistic choices on the basis of the effect they would have on the reader. Craig Santos Perez, for example, alternates between (in Roman type) a discussion of Steven Edmund Winduo’s views on hybridity in Pacific Islander literature and (in italics) a personal story of what it was like to grow up in Guam, eventually applying Winduo’s discussion to his own story. Though Perez talks at length about his own life in his essay, he makes it clear that his ultimate goal is “to make the traces of our stories visible.” Khadijah Queen, as I mentioned before, writes that her “Non-Sequitur” intends to bring about a certain awareness in the reader of his or her own performativity. And Joe Wenderoth discusses the relationship of his Letters to Wendy’s with “a variation on a particular comedic skit…: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” He speaks with remarkable impartiality about his own work, and eventually describes the comedic effect such a sketch has on the reader. All three of these writers manage to explain the intentions of their creative work in terms that are relevant primarily to its audience, and not only to other writers.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking about craft, and certainly this tendency makes the anthology even more useful in the creative writing classroom. But to direct the book toward writers—even to presume that authorial intent is a central factor in distinguishing what hybrid writing is—runs the risk of rendering the term “hybrid” useful only for those who also write. Again: not a disaster, relatively speaking. But as many excerpts from this anthology show, hybrid writing is often in essence political; if we are to challenge readers’ assumptions not only of genre but of the world around them, we must recall (or at least hope) that our audience is not only ourselves.

All of this said, Family Resemblance is an ambitious and profoundly varied document from a press that has been publishing and advocating hybrid writing for nearly ten years. The book will be especially useful in the classroom, and to those who hope to discover writers who work outside of traditional genre distinctions. It is hard to find unity in hybridity. Sulak and Kolosov have done the opposite: identified the tremendous diversity of a term, “hybridity,” that is so often used to give a (false) sense of unity.

Rose Metal Press (2015): $17.95

Dennis James Sweeney’s stories and poems have appeared in places like Crazyhorse, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, and Passages North. He’s the Small Press Editor of Entropy and author of the chapbooks THREATS and What They Took Away. This year, he lives in Malta.

REVIEW: Life in the Folds by Henri Michaux, trans. Darren Jackson


by Jerome Keeler

The writings of Henri Michaux (1899-1984) won the admiration of such figures as John Ashbery,  Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, and Octavio Paz. It was no small admiration: Michaux’s contemporaries understood him to be a genius. Yet Michaux’s major works, despite the fact that they have been available in authoritative French editions for decades, have for the most part not been translated into English.

Darren Jackson’s translation of Life in the Folds, originally published as La vie dans les plis (Éditions Gallimard, 1949) marks a small step toward rectifying this situation. Indeed, it is fair to call it something of an event. Quite apart from the quality of the translations, which are in large measure more lively than earlier efforts, Mr. Jackson has simply made a wise choice in translating a work in its entirety, rather than offering another volume of the selected-and-edited options already available. And he has chosen a particular type of Michaux work that, rather incredibly, has never been translated into English. One can easily find volumes describing Michaux’s mescaline experiments, or either of his travel journals, or works combining non-fiction, drawings, and verse, but until now there has been no way to access his more strictly poetic books except in selected form. This is a significant absence, for it is in such writings that Michaux’s artistry is on its fullest display.


Michaux is certainly not alone in such a fate—it is shared by any number of major twentieth-century poets who did not write in English. If we cannot really complain of this, then, we can at least note the results. These consist, I think, principally in an overselling of a certain side of Michaux: his quirkiness. If you’ve encountered any previous translations from Life in the Folds, such as those available in Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984 (University of California Press, 1994) or Someone Wants to Steal My Name (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2003), you might imagine Michaux to be some sort of comedian. In fact, throughout much of his work, and particularly in Life in the Folds, Michaux is primarily occupied with suffering.

The collection opens with a section titled “Freedom of Action.”  Most of the selections from Life in the Folds that have previously been translated elsewhere are drawn from this section, and it is not hard to see why. The most memorable piece is certainly the first, “The Sack Session,” which begins with the sort of setup characteristic of Michaux:

It began when I was a child. There was a big cumbersome adult.

How to get revenge on him? I put him in the sack. There, I could beat him at my leisure. He cried out but I didn’t listen. He wasn’t interesting.

I sensibly kept this childhood habit. I don’t trust the possibilities for intervention one learns as an adult, and besides, they don’t work very well.

You don’t offer a chair to someone in bed.

“Freedom of Action” continues to explore such imaginative acts of violence. In “The Sausage Cellar,” the speaker swipes an enemy marshal and other personages from the streets and grinds them into sausages. Elsewhere, to deal with the family, he makes a rapid-fire “slapping gun” out of his hand. Such scenarios display the primary mechanism of Michaux’s art: the displacement of concepts, or psychological states, to literal situations. The immediate reaction of a new reader to this gesture, I believe, is likely to be, and perhaps should be, a smile, or a chuckle. But it is the smile one smiles when reading Beckett, or Kafka, for instance—an uneasy one. As the title “Freedom of Action” suggests, Michaux knows what we are really in for: freedom amounts to no more than the possibility of imagining such a notion. It is reassuring, perhaps, to use the imagination to achieve revenge, but in reality it is oneself who will become the sausage, the marshal who will do the grinding. It is encouraging, then, in a perverse way, to see that there is a lot less to laugh about as Life in the Folds progresses.

Michaux witnessed, among other horrors, the occupations of Belgium and France, the Nazi death camps, the destruction of the great centers of European culture. And he perceived, as intensely as any modernist master, the effects of these events on the individual historical subject. The extent to which the camps in particular are central to his work becomes clear in Life in the Folds in a manner never approached by previous selections. His particular insights are most evident in the tensions between the pieces in “Freedom of Action” and those in the book’s second section, “Apparitions.” Here, the weaponry is no longer in the subject’s hands. It remains largely in the imagination but as a threat rather than a means of revenge. Michaux explores this in chilling ways. “The Danger in The Associations of Thoughts” begins with the cool observation that beauty can be appreciated whether the subject of contemplation is a pair of human lungs or the violent cutting action of a saw. Then the fireworks begin.

          But how miserable it is, a pair of lungs under a saw that approaches, imperturbably, how miserable it is, especially when these lungs are yours, and why did you start thinking of the saw when your body alone is what interests you, to which the saw, for this reason, will inevitably draw near? And in a time of blood such as ours, how could it not cling to it? And there it is, entering as if it were at home, sinking in thanks to its magnificent teeth, calmly cutting its furrow into the lungs that will be of use to no one, no one, isn’t that obvious?

For the imagination, the only element of the spirit that survives a near extermination, suffering is the only thing left to imagine. There is certainly nothing to smile about in this section, which occupies almost half of the volume. A catalogue of tortures is presented. Speakers envision being thermocautered, disembowled, trepanned, and assaulted with a sword so long that at the point of entry into the flesh it has tapered to the point of invisibility. To make matters worse, one simply gets used to it all: “A war comes. A war passes. Before passing it consumes a lot. It consumes enormously. So it’s natural that it crushes some skulls here or there.”

If Life in the Folds contained nothing but these sections, it would be a remarkable achievement. But Michaux has something more up his sleeve: “Portrait of the Meidosems,” a 28-page account of the aspirations and sufferings of an imaginary race of creatures who find themselves embodied fleetingly in a variety of forms. It is a dazzling, dizzying account, every bit as primitivistic and initially mystifying in French as in English (certain sections might give the impression that this is a clumsy translation, when in fact Jackson has simply chosen not to interfere with the effect of the original). When people describe Michaux as unclassifiable, “Portrait” is the kind of thing they have in mind:

The herd that’s coming, like slow pachyderms, advancing single file, their mass is and is not. What could they do about it? How could they carry it? That heaviness, that stiff gait is only something they’ve taken on to escape their lightness, which eventually terrifies them.                   And so goes the procession of enormous bladders, trying to deceive themselves.

A body of insightful French criticism exists on this poem, but much commentary in English seems to focus on the notion that the suffering of the Meidosems holds a mirror up to our own. But within the context of Life in the Folds, it seems more accurate to understand the Meidosems as unlike ourselves. If “Freedom of Action” and “Apparitions” are concerned with the sufferings of beings in the flesh, “Portrait” imagines the destiny of creatures who are, in terms of corporeality, neither here nor there. Shuttling between “the cold of Nothingness” and a variety of awkward bodies they cannot choose or control (knots, spears, bloated sponges, waterfalls, condensation on a mirror), the Meidosems pass their existence always on edge. They wouldn’t mind something a bit more permanent. Yet perhaps their fate is not so awful. For the embodied, as the speaker at one point breaks in to observe, there’s nowhere to go but down: “Scattered organs, broken races, intentions trapped in stone. The solid has you. In shards of yourself. The solid you so desired has you at last.”

Wakefield Press (2016): $14.95

First published as La vie dans les plis. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1949.

Jerome Keeler is a freelance writer living in Princeton, New Jersey.


REVIEW: The Siren World by Juan J. Morales


by José Angel Araguz

In an interview, the essayist Richard Rodriguez tells a story about Edward James Olmos visiting a high school in California. In the story, Olmos turns to the room full of young Latin@ faces and asks: “How many of you are proud to be Indian,” to which the young crowd applauds and hollers in approval. Olmos then asks: “How many of you are proud to be Spanish?” Here, the young crowd responds with an awkward silence.

Olmos’s questions and the youths’s two different responses play out the crucible in which many Latin@s must work out ideas of identity for themselves. In working out one’s sense of latinidad, a person must reconcile not just the history of the oppressed natives that fell under the conquistadores, but must also learn to reconcile the history of the oppressor, and how that too makes up part of the identity and history of Latin@s today. I share this story as a way into discussing the poems of Juan Morales’s The Siren World, a collection unafraid to reckon with both personal and cultural history.

There are places marked by no plaque.

No committee petitions for historical status,

but something happened here –

These lines, from the poem “New World Map,” point to the central engine of The Siren World. These poems engage with memory and identity in order to mark down what “happened here.” In the section The Mountain, the poems delve into the poet’s Ecuadoran background, embodied by stories of his mother as well as stories plucked from the history of the Spanish Conquest. The opening poem, “A Good Education,” layers the narrative of the mother’s childhood upbringing in Ecuador, where she “recited saints, prayers, and science formulas,” with his own childhood in the United States. In detailing the routines and curated knowledge shared in school, the speaker of this poem makes clear how “The world’s violence [can fall] from the minds like pencils dropped under ancient radiators.” By layering the history of not only the mother and the speaker, but also of countries, the poem evokes a sense of what is at stake in documenting and establishing what “happened here.” This layering also allows the speaker to end on an image familiar to anyone educated in the United States, an image charged further given the meditation of the poem:

And I put myself there too,


getting a good education, oblivious to our country’s failings, saying the

pledge of allegiance and gawking up at the flag with my small hand on

my heart, about which


I knew nothing.

This section ends with the poem “Downtown Ambato, 3:14 AM,” in which the speaker and the mother share a room during a visit to Ecuador. This meditation on insomnia highlights the poet’s ability to dwell on details; amidst counting exhalations and the intermittent barking of stray dogs, the speaker is possessed of a quiet urgency. The room for the insomniac becomes a kind of conscience, the speaker alert to each movement around him. This quiet urgency symbolizes the collection’s theme: as it does during the restless toss and turn of the speaker, the material of what “happened here” continues to move around us, fleeting, resisting to be marked down. Still, the poet tries:

I capture every town sound

and convince myself that I understand

my mother’s hunger for sleep after so many years

without. Then I multiply it. I wish I could wake her

and ask how to say insomnia

in Spanish except hope

she’s in the midst of peaceful sleep.

The second section of the collection, The Island, takes the poems to Puerto Rico to explore stories of the poet’s father. Where the poems in The Mountain lived in moments of meditation and reflection on what the past might mean, here the poems present the past in a tougher tone. In “Passport,” for example, a poem whose “passport” structure and conceptual framework reflect Adál’s “El Puerto Rican Passport, El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico,” the reader is presented with the following:

Sexo (Male) When I turned 18, my father gave me a machete. When I

turned 21, my father gave me a shoe shine kit.

The clipped and straightforward execution of these lines underscore the emotional atmosphere of The Siren World. For a moment, what “happened here” is marked down in two pseudo-official statements whose juxtaposition of violence and pathos strike a direct and exact(ing) note.

The theme of violence as a background element is returned to in “Garter Snakes.” Here, the reader is presented with the memory of killing of snakes as a childhood game. The speaker’s sensibility is established as the poem moves forward, describing both the violence done to snakes as well as to the speaker’s unspoken disgust and disapproval. The reader then learns:

When I threw rocks, I missed


on purpose. In the arroyo with the shallow

creek and the broken bridge,

I watched free snakes

ripple atop shallow water

with their heads level –

a holy incident

we did not yet know

we envied.

What is powerful about this ending is the inaction of the speaker. In the awkward silence of childhood moments like this one, a certain kind of character begins to develop. A child’s reckoning before natural life is later followed by the revelatory understanding of the poet.

The father narrative is developed over the course of the second section. As with the first section’s stories about the mother, these poems find the poet able to use history as a way to feel out both personal and cultural present. In “Revising Scars,” the effort to work out what “happened here” is stretched in a way that tests its limits. The poem begins:

I bait my father with questions about his history

like the tattoos of two birds inked on in 1952

that I already assigned the meaning of young love

and longing and preservation of him as a man…

The self-awareness of these lines is meaningful. In this scene, the reader is presented with a symbol of what the poet’s task consists of; essentially, to push and question against a world of “assigned” meanings, even their own. This imposed narrative on the part of the speaker is followed down further, until the father responds:

[           ] and he challenges family myth

when he tells me he was too drunk to remember

how those damned tattoos got on him in the first place.

There is a sadness to the humor of this ending, and a lightness to that sadness; the speaker’s invented narrative is deflated, but what deflates it is a clear evocation of the father. The speaker is thrown back onto his imagination; in this instance, what “happened here” is made of the kind of sharpness and elation found in the best poetry.

Indeed, the need to work through the sharpness and elation of one’s life is at the heart of The Siren World. Poet as chronicler of what “happened here.” Poet at the heart of the awkward silence between two inseparable sides of history. These poems by Juan Morales again and again take us to the heart of reconciliation with the personal and political. The ending of the poem “Guaman Poma, Writing By Candlelight,” turns the speaker’s meditation on the Quechua noble into a statement on the poet’s task; it also serves as a call to readers and writers alike to open their eyes to what “happened here”:

Where will my words about Guaman Poma be lost?

Maybe an attic, a thick folder in a desk,

or a garage box, but still confident

in the risky release of poems

into the hands of a comrade

who will carry each sacred word,

chancing the indifferent someone

who will never bother to read.

Buy it from Lithic Press: $17.00

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.



REVIEW: Beast Feast by Cody-Rose Clevidence



by Chris Caruso

Language allows the “I” to create a separation between the interior and the other –nature, beasts, lover, etc.—a process to draw distinctions and through that create a form of possession. This is the ghost of Adam’s placing names and roles upon all found in the Garden. It is through language stories are told, histories recounted, myths born, and poetry written. All of this implies a human imposing ones identity and knowledge upon the world. In Cody Rose Clevidence’s Beast Feast, a disruption occurs. The distinctions between human and animal, self and nature, language and meaning are all but dissolved throughout the collection. These poems force the reader to exist and become lost amongst the destabilized landscape.

It is in this process the “I” this concept of self is weakened to the point of evanescence- a transparent silhouette that tenuously grasps to the self-affirmation of knowledge that language is assumed to offer. The human and the beast melt into each other. Where the language and thoughts of one begin and end becomes increasingly difficult as the collection progresses. The result is an “I” that is not singular or completely human. It is in this tension where the Beast attempts to understand the language of poetry and civilization which imposes itself upon the natural world. As a reader one must seek order and meaning amongst a landscape in which the logic of the civilized world is confusion and misunderstanding thrive. These attempts at capturing meaning are constantly challenged. The poem[ZYG] captures this confusion, this displacement of the conventions of communication.











The poems in this collection are an evolution from the classical concepts of self and language into a world in which identity is unstable and shifting. The Metamorphosis series which can be assumed is a direct reference to Ovid’s work, further calls into question of how one is to interact within the world and changed by it.

“TRANS/IS LUCENT “EYEBALL’D” HAIRY NIGHT <FELT>//…is this a gated garden is this ambivalent is this a penultimate river/this is a mutant form of something I’ve seen before, leave it//…is this or isn’t it a way of changing perception is this in order, is this the order/or is it ordinary in the half-light or it is revolting…it is molting it is releasing some shimmering body into the hands of the state.”

Much like Ovid, the narrative is one of the shifting of forms of what a body is and how it is engaged and influenced. Is the “I” a human in animal form, or Beast that is playing a role at humanity? This is where the beauty and the challenge of the text occur. The pastoral is ruptured as the industry of humanity bleeds into nature. The poem is no longer a means to reflect on the tranquility of that beyond the city, but instead how civilization and nature clash, the uncertainty of identity that erupts from that.






This is one of the strengths of the collection, the uncertainty, the movement towards an attempt to understand. The audience is forced into a strange land with no guide or sense of direction. We are lost as an attempt to organize to find form, which has been stripped of the features that are relied upon to give meaning. These poems are not static words, but the living and growing experience of the Beast. A disruption where even the most simple sounding line, becomes a quagmire of uncertainty. “THIS IS THE FOREST” Such a simple line that highlights the complexity of this text, what is the forest? What isn’t and who or what inhabits it? It is Clevidence’s ability to draw attention to the struggle of poetry to express experience and knowledge. This struggle is what makes this collection an entity that can never be held in place, but offers slivers of understanding with each encounter. The result is the knowledge of the fragility of the self’s ability to identify and how quickly meaning is erased. The deterministic nature of poetry to express is corroded. What is left “trumps a psychological truth no trumpet relentless no weary shall no shelter.”

Ahsata Press: $18.00

Chris Caruso is a poet with MFA’s from Rutgers Newark and Boise State University. He is fascinated with the limits and transgressions of borders/boundaries especially the margins between words and images.

INTERVIEW: Equilibrium’s Suitcase // Ginger Murchison


interview by Jon Riccio

Ginger Murchison’s is a voice comprised of narrative vulnerability that embraces the “pulpit to all our falterings.” I’m fortunate to have worked with her at various junctures over the last two years, Murchison’s brand of literary mentorship equal parts scholar and ambassador. Her collection a scrap of linen, a bone (Press 53, 2016) encompasses the archaeologies of bloodlines in tandem with the convergences and temporalities intrinsic to the natural world. Each orchid is balanced by a father’s “old friend, skin dry as the hot-sand bottom/ of that river,” each birdsong falling on the ears of women who “kept vigils and prayed at the entrance of mines.” Over the course of our discussion, she reflects on the equilibrium that transpires between writers and readers, illuminates “what art in the dark wants to become.”

Jon Riccio: There’s a compelling orchestration of the descriptions throughout a scrap of linen, a bone, so much so I’d call them a portraiture of words. Take the poem “Gravedigger:”

            shouldering his way to the bottom of every grave,

his shirt black-wet either with sweat

or the slow rain crusting the dirty snow, every day

digging down to a place just like this—

another hole in another pewter-gray day

Do you prefer an accrual or a cascading of details?

Ginger Murchison: I want to be able to do both. I write most often with a formal pressure that controls the details. . . the release of information, grammatically orchestrated as it is in a scrap of linen, a bone’s “The Fish Houses,” a poem about those strings of nearly century-old shacks on pilings in Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor, built by the fishing industry as ice houses, net-mending stations or just shanties where the fishermen bunked.

Like seeds cracked open, blooming in the ooze of fish and mud

the blast of rain and hurricanes, they’re the story of wet boots, wet nets,

wet nights, outlasting the fishermen who smoked, drank, cursed and slept there—

their metal roofs stars in a galaxy turned upside-down, burning

its slow way to collapse, wordless as an offshore fog, a patience

in the wind’s rushed syllables coming forth and forth.

In another poem, “Mandatory Evacuation,” the circumstances of hurricane Charley don’t permit a controlled orchestration of detail. In this kind of poem, the details pour forth in a torrent down the page to overwhelm the reader, mimicking that swirl of the storm. It’s a 26-line sentence fragment with 17 participles—adjectives—all descriptively holding the focus in a continual present for the whirling effect, instead of the subject-verb march of a narrative.

piers               matchsticks

thrown out of the water

trees           piled up Tinker Toys           roofs

paper airplanes               households

split wide               like the lightning-strike sky

blown-wet curtains flapping

where a wall had been

and even with the waves quiet again

anything living     lives on some mercy   none

of the reasons for staying remembered

all around drowned

what’s gone

keeping on being gone

and the birds   complaining

in the sore air

The poem will dictate how it wants to be written.

JR: “From the Deck in Mid-November” brings us to “that safe way my sister and I had of testing/ whether the house was too nervous for noise” before reaching one of the book’s strongest lines, “Names hold sisters together like grass holds a hillside.” What empowers you in writing about the familial?

GM: A long memory, for one thing, but more importantly, the enormous emptiness I feel desperate to fill since I’m the only one of my family still living. My mother and father are in the book, too. We were one of those uncomplicated families where my blue-collar dad worked hard, proud of everything we did and anything he could buy for us, and my mother one of that first generation to work outside the home. In the case of sisters, it’s easy. While we were normal sisters as girls, and I was, she’d be quick to tell you, every annoying thing little sisters are known to be, we were best friends as adults. We grew up with the Arkansas River virtually in our back yard, in a really small house where it was impossible to have secrets. I inherited the clothes she grew out of and I tried every way I could think of to be like her. I keep writing poems, now, to leave something with the mark each of them left on me.

JR: “Gravity” features the Niagara Falls barrel traveler Annie Edson Taylor, whose sojourn occurred on her 63rd birthday. It arrives at a “relinquished equilibrium,” as if relinquishment somehow implies there was an initial option of control – something artists wrestle with from one draft to the next. When does the Annie approach work best? Did you find yourself identifying with Annie during this collection?

GM: I’ve never thought about that before. My first reaction would be to say I’m the antithesis to Annie, but I see aspects of her in me, especially early on. She contemplated every detail of her circumstance and how she would respond, even to her invented dead husband and the lie about her age. She designed her own barrel, oversaw its construction, deliberated every precise detail of her day, even to whom she would speak the calculated responses she’d scripted for herself. My earliest poems were hatched out of something like that strict control. I’d been a teacher for thirty-one years. I knew the last line before I’d written the first one. I wrote poems that carefully guarded an image I thought I needed to protect. I was good at syntax, and I screwed those poems down so tight, grammatically, they couldn’t breathe.

I read 50 or 60 contemporary poems a day, and I knew the kind of poem I wanted to write, but my finished poem was always a disappointment, nothing at all like the poem I’d hoped to see on the page. People said things like “Trust the process,” but I had no idea what that meant or how to do it. It was after I got into workshops that I realized the really good poems were open ended, while mine were shut down at the end. . .well, not just shut down but nailed closed. I started tearing the last three lines away from all my poems and left them hanging open. One by one, I discovered endings that instead of shutting the door on the reader, actually invited him in, a participant. When I got an ending right, it felt good.

After about seven years of poems, I began to see the work grammar could do, and I finally gave my English-teacher self permission to write a sentence fragment in a poem. The freedom of that was exhilarating, and I went a little wild, writing poems without punctuation, poems that didn’t behave on the page. Those, I guess, were the poems of my “relinquished equilibrium.” I’ve settled down a bit from that, but I don’t manage the poems any more. I let the poem tell me whether it wants to be a one-sentence poem, a syllabic poem, a chunk pouring down the page traditionally punctuated or not. I couldn’t have understood that in my “Annie approach” days. And putting this collection of poems together? At first, I had trouble letting go of seeing the manuscript as a strict chronology, but after throwing it against the wall and starting over at least a dozen times, it began to loosen up. Friends helped. Tom Lombado of Press 53 determined the final order, and I was more than glad to relinquish that job to him, and it was enlightening to see his vision at work, shaping it. Note: It wasn’t until the third pass through this paragraph that I spotted that word “relinquish.” There you go!

JR: You reference the future in ways thought-provoking (“on this chair, in the larger shadow/ he will one day become”) and ironic (“commercials to remind us/ what it was we used to want/ someday”). Mortality aside, why are we so preoccupied with time?

GM: I’m glad you asked this question. It gives me one more opportunity to tell poets about one of the most important books in my library, and I’ll let those brilliant author-poets answer for me. I had just finished my first semester in Warren Wilson’s MFA program for poets when I went to AWP and listened to the panelists, David Baker, Stanley Plumly, Linda Gregerson and Ann Townsend, talk about Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry from Graywolf Press. Each of these four poets contributed an essay on time in that book that changed my whole way of seeing poems and gave me a new way of talking about them.

Listen to what David Baker says in his essay, “To Think About Time.”

Time defines us. Time binds us. Yet time is not an element of nature. It does not exist in and of itself, as a material substance, like a sycamore does or a muon. It is an immaterial measurement of the relationships of material substances and—this is important—it is an entity wholly of our own making. It is a figment, a metron, a device by which we measure the elements of nature. Or, more exactly, it is a device by which we measure the changes among natural substances. The tides sweep in and out, our hearts beat, atoms fuse and decay, and all the great galaxies spin around at unimaginable speeds across unimaginable space. Space, the cosmologists remind us, is merely another word for time. . . .

(David Baker, p. 235)

Poetry is about the varieties of measuring, telling and thinking about time. Thus the nature of its stories varies from poem to poem. The interesting question is not whether a poem has a story in it, but rather what kind of time-telling the poem undertakes. Time may be suppressed, elongated, distorted or abbreviated. It may be spotty, circular or linear.”

(David Baker, p. 242)


“Time provides the subject, the story, and the style of lyric poetry. . .if. . .the temporal engine of a poem is its verb, then what happens to time in a poem without a verb?


The apparition of these faces in the crowds;

Petals on a wet, black bough.


In the place where a verb would likely reside, Pound substitutes a semicolon (originally a colon, in an earlier draft). He wants the poem to be an instant of recognition or epiphany, an instant of likeness, so he snips out the temporal marker and puts in something like an equal sign. Thus the image in line 1 is like the image in line 2. The poem doesn’t seem to advance, or evolve, without a verb to enact. . . .[and] thereby embodies Pound’s interest in a “pure image.”

(David Baker, p. 239)


And listen to Stanley Plumly in his essay, “Lyric Time.”

Time, for instance, as a measure within and without the poem: that is, the conceit of the amount of time implied or covered within the “action” of the poem; the actual time the poem takes, say sonnet time as opposed to fifty or eighty lines or the hundred-and-thirty-two lines required to cross the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn; or timing time, the rhythm, the cadence, the metrical time, the length of line time across then down the page, pacing time. Then there is the time after the poem, relative to its displacement, density and resonance, the reading and reflective time, the breadth of time necessary to absorb the time of and with a lyric poem.

(Stanley Plumly, p. 264)


Whitman’s “Brooklyn Ferry” is eternal—past, present, and future—and. . .we, its passengers, are, in the best sense, interchangeable with those who have traveled and those who will travel this well-worn path.”

(Stanley Plumly, p. 267)

And there’s the best possible answer to your question: “What empowers you in writing about the familial?” I am interchangeable with the members of my family who traveled here with me. I hear my mother’s voice when I speak. I make my sister’s hand gestures; my father is always there in his quiet moral stance, modeling who we should be.

I’m embarrassed I’ve taken so long an answer, but I actually wish I could type all of Radiant Lyre’s essays for you. I hope everyone reading this will get a copy. I taught English 31 years, so I’ve developed a heightened awareness of the verb and how it moves us in time (its tenses) and the verbals that are verb forms but perform in sentences like adjectives, adverbs, and nouns and don’t advance the story forward. Read Theodore Roethke’s “Child on Top of the Greenhouse.” There isn’t a verb in the poem, but rather seven participial phrases that freeze this moment of fear for the child, “the wind billowing out the seat of his britches,” on top of those “crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,” that “streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,” those “white clouds all rushing eastward,” that “line of elms all plunging and tossing,” and “everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting.” Even the child, the poem’s subject, is not mentioned in the poem. Mimicking the events in the poem, he’s suspended on top of it in the title. A preoccupation with time? It guided Roethke’s poem, for sure. “Mandatory Evacuation” gives a nod to Roethke with its maybe 17 participles. “Every Last Time” is another one. Its two verbless subjects, “everything” and “me,” are motionless in a swirling guilt, produced by about 20 verbals.

JR: “Asylum’s” epigraph haunts me in my tracks: “for the mental patients and the hundreds of unopened suitcases found after New York’s Willard State Hospital for the Insane closed in 1995.” as do the lines:

            light laid down in a cockeyed pattern, the grain of Venetian-blind slats

a labyrinth that will swallow it, an insistent hum the numb oblivion


of naked light bulbs, where it will pay to learn to be dead,

where the living stand over the dead to make sure they stay dead.


Is tone easier when you have a specific location as your poem’s subject?

GM: For me, tone is less about a specific location as the poem’s subject, as it is about the location of the poem in the poet. I’ll need to explain that. In an interview with Billy Collins for the 10th anniversary of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, I mentioned that not enough poems I read for The Cortland Review have a reader in mind. They sound like an exercise between the poet and the page. . .an attempt to be clever. . .some kind of verbal gymnastics, some attempt to appear brilliant. I’m outside that kind of poem, the kind of poem that comes out of the poet’s head rather than from some deeply human place in him that connects him to me emotionally. Billy responded similarly, that when he reads poems for a contest, he becomes impatient. “No one is talking to me! Will someone just please talk to me!” When the poet considers his reader in conversational language in an intimate setting as at a café table over coffee, everything changes. He voice will come from a more intimate place in himself. He’ll choose different words, project an authenticity I can’t help responding to. Laure-Anne Bosselaar, in an early workshop I took, said we should write the word LISTEN! at the top of the page to keep us from forgetting our reader.

The intimate place in me that produced “Asylum,” that poem you reference, was deeply affected by the fact that the Willard State Hospital for the Insane didn’t close until 1995. My husband and I have a mentally challenged daughter who, after public school special ed. programs until she was 21, went, in 1997, to live at the Stewart Home School in Frankfort, Kentucky. That’s just two years after the close of the Willard State Hospital that, at its peak, housed more than 4,000 “inmates,” with the average stay being 30 years. Most never left, and some 5,000 are buried in numbered graves on the property. Tone is inherent (not planted) in a poem that registers from this deep in that authentic place in the poet.

The tragic story of those suitcases is told in The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from A State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney, Peter Shastny with Lisa Rinzler, photographer (Bellevue Literary Press, Reprint Edition, 2009).

JR: I loved line two of the closing tercet in “Vocabulary” for its relationship between object, place and the verb that links them:

            I couldn’t tell where death began and ended,

but that whole farmhouse tilted toward the casket

with the weight of my new word.

Did you write this from a micro- (beautiful connections via parts of speech) or macro- (penultimate encompassing the entire poem) perspective? Do you think current poetry favors one aspect over the other?

GM: I think this is the third poem I ever wrote. I didn’t know a thing about writing poetry, but I bumped into a poetry group online. It was 1997, and my personal computer was about a week old when I found poems online—not the kind I’d been teaching in textbooks, but contemporary poems in chat rooms, some written a whole 10 minutes before they were posted. I wanted to do that. I couldn’t have understood your question then, and in “Vocabulary,” I wrote out of my remembered 5-year old’s confusion about what the word “death” meant. I couldn’t reconcile that casket in my grandparents’ farmhouse dining room with

[h]omemade bread [rising] in the kitchen

with choruses of Inka Dinka Do

and Won’t you come Home, Bill Bailey,

my own mother louder than the rest.

Even the priest who bowed his head

beside the body grabbed a beer,

pressed its cold against his face, sang, too.

I’m not sure I can answer your question now about what I was trying to do then, but I’d have to say that my years as an English teacher would most likely have had me leaning toward the “micro- (beautiful connections via parts of speech) perspective,” but then, trying to put down that 5-year old’s recollections as an adult seems to have required that “macro- (penultimate encompassing the whole poem) perspective,” too. Endings are difficult. I love what Mark Doty said recently: “One ambition of poetry is to create a reverberant silence in its wake, one that means more or differently than the silence that preceded the poem.” I think I just deftly wormed my way out of this question without answering it, but I’m thinking every poem is the examination of our macro-humanity expressed with a micro-focus on what makes that expression art.

JR: Of the mothers in a scrap of linen, a bone – “Mid-Western Madonna” (“Little more than a child herself. . .belly-soft with new birth, her flimsy skirt/ wadded between her legs) and the matriarch from “Wartime Measures” (“Weekdays, she donned coveralls,/ rode the bus an hour each way/ to work the night shift/ in Boeing’s assembly plant) – who leads a harsher existence? Who are your favorite writers on the subject of motherhood?

GM: Who leads a harsher existence? Hands down it’s the Mid-Western Madonna in that “Kansas dust the color of struggle,” that “back-alley, brick-oven heat.” But the even harsher existence may fall to the infant daughter at her breast,

not much to suckle there

but the knowledge of breast and thigh.

All it will ever pay her to know.

In “Wartime Measures” my own mother, after her “coveralled” week of the night-shift in Boeing’s assembly plant, was full of singing. And she was (we all were) infused with the cause of World War II.

            all those mason jars

labeled and lined up like soldiers

on shelves in the cellar—

every jewel color of summer preserved


head to foot berry stained,

bent to the purple boil

in the weekend-sweet kitchen heat.


The idea of “mother” I grew up with was that woman described in “River”

patiently waiting for what happened next,

the way women have always waited for hunter husbands,

kept vigils and prayed at the entrance of mines.

One of the first images of mother I discovered in a poem was in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” where even the word “glass” connotes a cold and fixed edginess at which nerves bristle, where the idiosyncratic punctuation and line breaks make the simple words and short sentences feel like a mouthful of broken glass, where the mother offers her visiting daughter nothing personal, warm, or welcoming, but rather launches into a laundry list of concerns that, while they are endowed with highly charged emotion, they serve as small talk, pointing perfectly to the emotional distance between mother and daughter. This is not a place to come for sympathy, and the outside, just as cold as the mother, is “paralyzed with ice.” That may not be my favorite image of “mother,” but in Anne Carson’s hands, it’s certainly the most poetically artistic.

The most passionate mother poem I’ve discovered has to be Rebecca Foust’s scathing “Apologies to my OB/GYN” in her third book, winner of the 2008 Many Mountains Moving Press Poetry Book Prize, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song.

Sorry that my boy birthed himself

too early, took up so much room. . . .


Sorry we were such pains in your ass,

asking you to answer our night calls like that. . . .


Sorry about how he defied your prognoses

skyrocketed premiums, weighted the costs

in your cost benefit analyses. . . .


Sorry he took so much of your time

being so determined to live. He spent

today saving hopeless-case nymph moths

trapped in the porch light, one matrix-dot

at a time. Now he’s asleep, blue wingbeat

pulse fluttering his left temple—there,

there again. Just like it did then.

JR: You mention the late Steve Orlen (co-founder of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and a faculty member at Warren Wilson) in your acknowledgements. What impact did he have on your work?

GM: Everyone at Warren Wilson loved Steve Orlen and wanted to work with him, especially on the essay. It was the first day of my essay semester, and I’d come armed with a subject—even a title: “ALL THE TIME THERE IS: An Interrogation into the Function of Sound, Syntax, and Grammar Across the Career of Larry Levis.” Warren Wilson students were never encouraged to request a supervisor, the idea being that the faculty knew better who should be paired with whom, but I’d decided I wanted to work with Steve Orlen for two reasons. One, he’d been Larry Levis’ friend, and I knew he’d have anecdotes to help me humanize Levis. I also knew he was famous for helping students throw open poems to digression, disjunction and surprise, something Levis was famous for, and something I still wasn’t doing in my own poems, so I wasn’t shy about dropping hints that I was hoping to work with Steve Orlen. Milling around that opening-day reception with a drink in my hand, I overheard Steve say, in that voice that kept few secrets, that he wanted to work with Ginger Murchison. I wheeled around, put out my hand and said, “I’m Ginger Murchison, and I just told three people that I wanted to work with you.”

Steve, very early on, got bored with the whole idea of reading one more sentence about syntax and grammar and suggested by the third packet that we “just work on poems.”

He called me out for the “matter of too much control” in my poems. Syntax, he said, was the only formal strategy that would help me break open my imagination and explore more than, say, two avenues at a time in a poem. He asked me to look at how Levis’ digressions did not lead him back to what he was already talking about but into new territory.

Seamlessness and perfection, he said, don’t necessarily strengthen a poem.

Avoid the grammarian’s tendency to tie the poem up in its own syntax.

Create poems out of speech instead of writing, and passion instead of intellect.

The closer to speech even a form poem comes the stronger its expressiveness.

As to repeated gestures, remember Jon Anderson: “Say it once and move on.”

In that one semester’s letters, Steve had direct influence on at least six of the poems in a scrap of linen, a bone. I still feel the easy way he coached me and coaxed me into another way of thinking about a poem, especially its ending. I just want to go down as evidence of the huge difference Steve Orlen made out here.

JR: You’re affiliated with Palm Beach Poetry Festival, The Frost Place and, in years past, Bread Loaf. What factors should one take into consideration when exploring writers’ conference options?

GM: Cost and proximity are always factors. The quality of teachers, and by that, I don’t mean “top tier poets.” We all love hanging out where those guys are, but conferences where they are regular fare are going to cost more, and the younger practicing poets are great teachers, too, and often a lot more energetic. Who else is going to the conference? Are most of the participants your age? Are at least some in graduate programs? Are they serious or part-time poets? It’s the level of discourse you’re after. You’ll likely be sleeping in dorms and eating together. It’s always best if there’s a varying demographic. Find poet teachers who come out of the aesthetic you ascribe to. If you’re an experimental poet, look for the conference where you’ll fit in best. If you want to write only in forms, look for the place/teacher most likely interested in helping with that. Ask every poet you know. Ask every teacher you know. Ask poets you don’t know. Ask me. I go to the same conferences every year and make it a point to study with someone I don’t know, someone about whom I have no previous notions or expectations. I’m always pleasantly surprised.

JR: The final couplet of “Small Craft Advisory” states “It will take both of you to untie the language/ and discover the insignificance of speech.” When did you make this discovery? Does it cast an interpretative lens over the book?

GM: I wrote that poem in one night at the Iowa Summer Writers’ Workshop where I went three successive years to study with Richard Jackson who taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, just up the road from Atlanta, where I lived at the time. It was a response to an “assignment,” a prompt that I can’t now remember. I made that discovery that night struggling to find an end for the poem. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any other poems that came that easily. But making it about Huck and Jim made it easy for me. I hold the (probably) unusual distinction of having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aloud 79 times to 8th graders and that once to my son. Those two on that raft, Huck and Jim, called in another poem in the book “those two strange shapes of grace,” communicated in a language more honest and more sincere than any conversation that happened on land, whether by the ignorant, the authorities or the righteous. I wanted Jason to know that kind of honesty in speech, but Huck and Jim communicated, too, in their silences when they drifted “solemn and slow.”

I don’t think there’s an interpretive lens over the book from that, but there is likely an influential one. I guess you’d never know it by the long-winded answers to these questions, but I’m selfish about words, in conversation. I’d rather listen. In the poem “from the Chicago Train,” the mother figure is “too tired to think all the way to words.” That’s how I feel most of the time. That’s why the poems are mostly short, the sharp syntax keeping a deliberate watch against telling and overwriting. If I have done my job with the images, the rest is insignificant. I don’t know if that’s why I love Huck and Jim, or if Huck and Jim helped fashion that in me. Either way, I’m richer for knowing them.

Thank you for these wonderfully thoughtful and smart questions, and for the time you spent with my book.

Ginger Murchison earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College. Together with Thomas Lux, she helped found POETRY at TECH, where she served as associate director for five years and as one of its Visiting McEver Chairs in Poetry. She serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of The Frost Place, is a member of the conference faculty for the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, is a regular guest at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is Editor-in-Chief of the acclaimed Cortland Review. She has two grown children, Arienne and Jason, and lives with her husband Clyde Mynatt in Ft. Myers, Florida.

Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Carbon Culture Review, Mead, Yellow Chair Review, Bridge Eight, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review and Pamplemousse, among others. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona. A 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, he serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.

REVIEW: Her Skin is a Costume by Meg Tuite


By Laura Madeline Wiseman

Meg Tuite’s newest chapbook Her Skin Is a Costume offers a linked sequence of short stories written in the flash fiction mode that capture the effects and aftereffects of alcoholism and family violence as it reverberates through the lives of children who lived it and become adults living it still. Sometimes there is a hopeful naiveté that removing children from the parents that emotional and physically abuse them will be the balm that soothes the wounds of neglect and trauma, rather than understanding the complex ways post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can scar all. Tuite’s collection demonstrates the vast and varying effects of PTSD.

The first story “May I Please Be Excused from Reality” opens with children hiding upon the return of their father from work. She writes, “Whatever life was lived in the apartment before he arrives vacates itself. All six siblings scurry into silence, shadows. Mom busies herself in the kitchen”. As dinner begins, the children keep to silence. The father speaks, “‘So you must have done something productive today,’ he says as he carefully cuts his chicken, slicing each piece into thin wafers before spearing it with his fork. ‘There’s got to be some goddamn reason I’m paying for your Catholic education,’”. On invitation, the children of this family verbally posture, acting out their father’s family violence on classmates and peers, on each other and on themselves. This is a family where they have learned and are practicing that to engage with others means violence and it’s better to enact it, rather than be the recipient of it. Tuite writes, “We are such opaque children. We are subterfuge”.

Certainly there are girls and women in Her Skin Is a Costume who are violent, who drink and do drugs, who steal and lie, but Tuite also shows how family violence can have a lasting impact on those gendered female whose lasting effects of PTSD are to be repeated victimized by boys and men. In “Body of Bread” the protagonist Tracey has turned her body into a bread that fills the sexual needs of groups of men, solitary men, and couples. As sex worker, her body’s work is sometimes paid in cash and sometimes in alcohol. Tuite writes, “Trace spends nights forging through this monotony of reality in the same way her mother plunged her fists into the dough. They both feel out those areas of resistance, force the lumps into the center to merge. They pound down coarse little fistfuls of tireless egos, pummeling to work out life’s inbred inertia and resistance with the looser, runnier matter of risk,”. Tuite suggests that the character realizes she seeks the necessary self-work of redemptive violence against the self. However, when men seek to do this same necessary self-work, rather than use redemptive violence on the self it becomes redemptive violence against others.

The character of Tracey in “Body of Bread” is tragic, for through her character and her character’s work lingers the fear that despite the pummeling her body and life takes by her own hands will not be enough. She will not be transformed. She will not rise. This lingering tension is what makes Her Skin Is a Costume transformative and urgent. Tuite’s chapbook invites sadness and anger, to mourn what is lost by the tragedy of family violence as it manifests, but neither pity nor guilt’s urge are the force of this work. Tuite’s chapbook suggests questions—if organized religion offer scripts of power of men over wife and children, then how do such scripts linger decades after the children have grown and gone? Why do we perpetuate such traditional stories still, if even one family or one child is damaged by them? If we know PTSD is long lasting for those who’ve experienced gender violence as children, then why do we fail to offer support to such individuals later in life when they need it most? Tuite writes, “Pain will always be another sibling” and by doing so, her statement invites us to question if it does.

Beyond the absolute necessity of chapbooks such as the one Tuite has written, is the power and force of language and art here. Tuite’s characters are exquisite and real, they are complexly drawn and cast in such a way that the reader is made aware of their tragic flaws even as the characters themselves linger in oblivion. These are characters who are “trying to locate an existence that remains as defiled as his memory of his dad’s beatings”, whose eyes “are swollen and red. They speak of days, months of silent sobbing,” whose laughter is the thick skin against sexual assault. Her Skin Is a Costume is a complete story in edgy, raw language that is visceral and crucial because it suggests that by calling attention to family violence, we don’t have to perpetuate the cycle. We can offer our boys and girls, our women and men new narratives of interactions, if we’re brave enough to take off the costume, the guise of toughness, the act of violence, and begin looking and really seeing what’s underneath.

Red Bird Chapbooks (2013): $12

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of over twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her most recent book is Drink (BlazeVOX Books, 2015). She teaches in Nebraska.