Category: Scott Russell Morris

REVIEW: The Book of Feral Flora by Amanda Ackerman

by Scott Russell Morris

You’re not supposed the judge books by the cover, but I totally judged this one by its title and partially by its minimalist cover. “Feral Flora” is just very fun to say. The idea is delightful, and a book that can delight linguistically and idea-wise in just one title is worth picking up. (The cover is neat, too).

Inside the book, things get much more complicated, even as they continue to delight both by the sheer genius of the idea and the linguistic play. The first things most readers will immediately notice—and probably get thrown off by—are the multiple tables of contents. The first is a straight- forward Table of Contents that accurately and in a standard format tells us you what to expect in the rest of the book. Then there is a Table of Contents “written by Iris” and one written by “Morning Glory” and one written by Iris “later in the day.” These latter Tables of Contents are jumbles, unrecognizable, practically unreadable remixes of the original. Flipping through the book, you also find other such remixes, all written by trees and flowers, all unreadable in the conventional sense.

But not without delight. There is a certain delight in the randomness, the feralness of the floral prose. My favorite—based purely on my aesthetic, because by what else can poetry written by flowers be judged?—is a stanza in “Feral Iridium Animate Matter:”

STRUCTURE

written by Iris (later in the day)

 earth, else, you, interim? husband did and you B, and and husband and homes of of homes husband and of and what you and and forth between she was and A and do When When she in When When if B, did you, interim? […] If wished well, If the world to be would ars bare My ay bare appear apear of fists petals. of flowers. flowers. petals. of of with flowers. of arms would arms with appear of wished Buried flowers. I wished to to be

A note at the end of the book reveals that these poems, “written” by Iris and Maple and Mulberry, were generated after hooking the plants to sensors which recorded their reactions to Ackerman reading her poems allowed. Ackerman says,

In the composition, I used several somatic devices, such as altering my body through the scent of orris root, physically touching the plants, or ingesting irises. I wanted to alter my own sensory capacities through direct encounters with the iris plants themselves.

The result, is that about half of the book is attempting to bring us into “direct encounters” with the plants themselves, altering our perception and our definitions of poetry. There are passages, like in the chapter “Short Stones”, where the page does nothing but repetitively list types of trees. It is hard not to skim over these passages. It is also difficult not to want to read them aloud repeatedly. There is something both engrossing and gross about the way the plants have (de)composed these pieces.

The first chapter—which is more like lyric essay than prose poem—says of the narrator’s garden, “I wanted to call them pretty but they were weeds.” You might think the same thing about many of the poems in this book. They are pretty, but not in a way you feel comfortable with. It is tempting to think these poems written by plants may be a trick of some sort. But you also can’t deny that there is a certain wonder in the thought of plants writing poetry.

However, the flower-written poems are only portion of the text, and though it is the most showy part, and I think the part that will likely get the most press, it isn’t the most enjoyable part for the reader. Ackerman has other tricks up her sleave that are just as frustrating and delighting, but more rewarding. Most of the other works are somewhere between prose poetry and narrative. As mentioned, the first chapter reads like essay, as do portions of “Short Stones.” Most of the other chapters, however, lean heavily towards magical realism or even fairy tale. In one, two sisters wait out their time in the belly of a whale. In another, the chapter reads like an essay about minimalism, household items, and the narrator’s uncertain love life. In another, a witch tells a girl she has the power to heal, but the girl doubts that gift. In my favorite of the chapters, Ackerman retells the story of Hansel and Gretel, weaving it with the story of a dissatisfied business man who ends up turning into the witch who eats the children. The chapter is called “One Heart Is Better than No Heart: Emerging Buds” and starts with the tantalizing line, “It is time the story changes for good because it is an old story.”

Then, the next chapter of the book is titled “One Heart I Better than No Heart: (To be Read Separately): Regeneration. The Stalk Re-buds.” This second story starts with the same line: “It is time the story changes for good because it is an old story.” And then proceeds to tell the exact same story as the chapter before it. Word for word the same. Or close enough—it becomes a tedious game to check every sentence, but I didn’t find any that were different. The only difference comes because the first chapter starts on the right page and the second on the left. The effect is disorienting, but pleasantly so. Phrases you didn’t remember reading you go back and check, only to find them there. Details you’d already forgotten feel odd. You realize that you remembered the details in the wrong order. Like all the chapters in the book, you can’t help wondering if it is a luxurious trick. But you also wonder if it is the highest form of art, which makes you question everything you knew about how narratives should be told and how poetry is shaped.

In brief: Amanda Ackerma’s The Book of Feral Flora is a wild ride across genres and styles, a reading experience more than just a mere book of poetry or narrative. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth a read.

Buy if from Les Figues Press for $17.00

Scott Russell Morris is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. He is currently working on a memoir-in-essays about food, family, and travel. Visit him at www.skoticus.com

REVIEW: Model City by Donna Stonecipher

 

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by Scott Russell Morris

My wife and I moved to Astana, Kazakhstan, three years ago, living there for a year while we taught at a Kazakh high school. From the largest window in our sixteenth-floor apartment, we could look out over the undeveloped edge of the capitol city where a large, globular building—which I affectionately referred to as the Death Star—was slowly taking shape, and beyond that, the glass pyramid Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, beyond that, the glittering new mosque and a set of buildings the ex-pat community called the Dog Bed and the Water Dish, beyond that, the old Soviet-style apartments. On the opposite side of the building, if we looked out from the stairwell’s windows, we could see the new apartment buildings under construction. The next block over from us, an excavation, started before we arrived and still digging when we left, was rumored to be preparations for what would be the tallest building in Central Asia. And just beyond that, the heart of Kazakhstan’s new capital city, a mirage of sparkling business and residential buildings, tall skyscrapers—some wavy, some glassy, some stony—all clashing against each other for flashiness. Malls and restaurants and businesses and fancy hotels next to the ambassadors’ houses. A tall, surreal tree with a golden egg, Kazakhstan’s equivalent of the Washington Monument, gleamed in the middle of it all, colored lights on it at night.

But most of these buildings were empty, the apartments built for show more than occupancy, the idea of a capitol more than the function of one, the president’s dream of what his legacy will be, but not yet accomplished. Beyond the glittering façade are crumbling apartments with exposed wires. The actual residents of the city live in the old Soviet heart, where buildings are short, square, uniform, and functional, where the mall’s wares are affordable and necessary.

I couldn’t help but think of all these empty buildings glittering in the Siberian sun and wind as I opened Donna Stonecipher’s Model City, a poetic exploration of other such cities, cities built with a plan or a dream that is unattainable.

Model City starts with a question: “What was it like?”. After which, we get 72 poems, all of them titled “Model City,” each poem containing four prose poem stanzas, every stanza beginning with “It was like…” And then each stanza takes you to a dreamlike world of empty hotel rooms and architects without buildings to build:

It was like the young architect sitting at her window looking out for hours at the city skyline and making lists of which buildings are beautiful and which are sublime.

The repetition of the uncertainty—tell us what it was like without telling us what it actually was, without telling us exactly what it is at all—creates a dreamy world as you move from poem to poem. While we know from the afterward that Stonecipher based many of her poems on Berlin and many others on the planned communities throughout the world, we don’t learn that in the poems themselves, and instead are left wondering if we’re looking at real cities, imagined cities, or imagined cities overlaid on the real ones. There are, in the words themselves, cities “composed solely of expensive emptinesses”. The language itself continually loops back on itself, so that in any given poem, each stanza contains many of the same words, as though the words became a way to see the through the façades their own emptiness. These emptinesses and looping rhythms only add to the dreaminess that the descriptions themselves create, emptinesses which draw attention not just to all the unused hotel rooms in the model cities, but also the strangeness of words.

It was like the citizen knowing that home is a construction exposing our constructedness; he chose the most beautiful language and tried to disappear into its declinations.

The world of Model City reminds me very much of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, though Stonecipher’s poems are less grounded in fancy and more in actual possibility—though often, possibilities unmet—and her observations are not of the supernatural, but of the oddly quotidian: for example, a city full of ad spaces that only advertise their own availability, shops where everything is free, the fleeting pleasure of an apartment with a sunrise view blocked by an empty hotel, an architect inspired by ocean waves. We do not have real cities in her work, we have model cities, city ideals. Factual, but not actual, cities.

The genius of her work lies in that strange boundary between what was imagined and what is actual, it was something was like, not what it actually was. While her book took me back to Kazakhstan, it will take other readers elsewhere. Readers, immersed as they will be in the beautiful, expensive emptinesses and abstractions of Stonecipher’s language, will no doubt be reminded of their own model cities, their own travels, their own moments running up against emptinesses.

Buy it at Shearsman Books. $16.

Scott Russell Morris is a student at Texas Tech University and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. He is at work on a memoir of food and travel. His essays have recently appeared in Brevity, Proximity, Assay, and Stone Voices.

REVIEW: Sixty Morning Walks by Andy Fitch

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by Scott Russell Morris

Craig Dworkin’s forward to Andy Fitch’s Sixty Morning Walks places the book of prose poems—lyric essays? the boundary, always murky, is especially so here—in the tradition of the literary walker, the flâneur who observes and records. This is a fair placement, as all sixty of the sixty-sentenced entries recount details from a walk, and it is clear that the author of these pieces intends the walk to be more than just a walk, also a literary exercise. But the difference between Fitch’s walks and those of other literary ramblers like Thoreau or Woolf is that Fitch remains much closer to the source material. He rarely extends his thoughts on the page from the walk itself, and even when he does let us know that something he saw reminded him of something else, that fact is all we get. No explanation, no musing, just a continuation of the walk. More details, collaged together.

In this way, each piece—and the collection as a whole—reads like a collection of moments, a grouping of loiterers and business men and police officers and dogs and parks and stray grains of rice all together. Perhaps it is just the settings of New York City and the idea of recounting the everyday people there, but in lots of ways Sixty Morning Walks feels closer to Brandon Stanton’s photography project Humans of New York, in that it collects snapshots of—and creates wonder towards—the mundane people and scenes on the streets of New York. By observing people—the doorman at Fitch’s girlfriend’s apartment, the teachers leading field trips, the panhandling potheads, the men in stylish pants—he makes the boring exciting, the familiar both strange and sexy.

As you could imagine, then, Sixty Morning Walks, starts as a slow read, taking its sentence structures and its dedication to cadence and sound from poetry. If you do the pieces justice, it can take you an hour to read just one walk, though it is only a two-page piece. But there are really too many walks for that to be a sustainable way to read the book as a book, which makes for an interesting reading experience because each individual piece is not very exciting as a poem: the details are all there is, the language skillfully pared down, but not much happens narratively or emotionally in any one piece. Reading just one day’s walk would be completely unfulfilling. Yet, as a series of walks, all read together, the book becomes incredibly engrossing, the details more and more interesting even as they stay just as mundane at the first, so that by the end, though the narrative has remained steady and the emotions never risen or fallen, the sixty walks together seem to be some great feat, a slowness to the mood and a quickness to the pace that makes you want to really savor every small, boring detail and examine them closer.

While the pieces’ quick pace and seemingly random assortment of details appear to resist theme or deeper meaning, there are a few motifs that stick out, that make for a particularly interesting mix when paired with the menagerie presented. The first motif that struck me was the continued presence of the police and guards. It seemed that the narrator was constantly being told where he could and could not go or where he did not belong. Only once in the whole book did a police officer smile, though Fitch recounts countless other smiles throughout. In a book about walking, this continual butting up against barriers makes for an uneasiness that is just below the surface, easy to miss. And it is also part of the genius of the piece. It is impossible to know if that continued noticing was intentional, or just the law of large numbers creating an ominous undertone to an otherwise lightly themed book.

The second, and perhaps the obvious theme from a work of this sort, is the act of looking at other people. But Fitch tells us over and over that he is not just looking at other people, he is staring at them, making eye contact. He assumes people think of him as a creep several times, but several times the eye contact leads to a shared smile. Several times he openly tells us that the people he stares at he finds sexy. And even those who don’t seem sexy still get the voyeuristic gaze; so really, everyone seems sexy, which is another relationship I see with the Humans of New York project. Alexander Smith, in his essay “On the Writing of Essays” says that “If a man is worth knowing at all, he is worth knowing well.” A project like this one, that sort that collects people, proves that you don’t even need to know a man, woman, child, or dog well:, sometimes it is enough just to notice them.

Sixty Morning Walks is available from Ugly Duckling Presse.

Scott Russell Morris lives in Lubbock, TX, where he is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His essays have appeared in BrevityProximityBlue Lyra Review, and Stone Voices.

Young Tambling by Kate Greenstreet

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A casual flip through Kate Greenstreet’s work of art—it is an artwork, even more so than being a book—Young Tambling shows you that you don’t know how to read this text. There are blocks of prose. There are lines of verse, sometimes dense, sometimes thin, sometimes one line at the bottom of a page. The poems don’t have titles, except that there are “chapter” titles, if they can be called such. There are paintings which, though printed in black-and-white, hint at colors and textures the paper cannot convey. Some of the images have captions, but the captions do not directly reference the text or the art, are just one-line poems themselves. You get blank pages. Handwritten notes. Large, graphic quotes with all but one word erased, then, pages and pages later, the whole quote. The “about the author” only tells you something about the author in the fact that it tells you very little about the author but shows her laughing while playing a guitar. There is a photograph of the book, pre-constructed, pinned as individual pages to a wall, and the caption says “Although I was thinking in two-page spreads, at some point I realized that I wasn’t actually (physically) making a book. I was making a big rectangular piece of temporary art)” (166). This is the most direct language in the whole piece. You do not know how to read this text.

Like the title character, the shape and form of Greenstreet’s “experimental memoir” (described thus on the author’s website) is constantly changing, but contained in a specific, repeating form: erased quote, block of prose, verse, full quote, more verse. Though that form can’t be counted on either: the book’s last section leaves off from the pattern. Nothing is certain.

Because it is a “memoir,” you might assume you can read the shifting narrator as Greenstreet herself, but there are too many bodies, too many women, too many voices for this to be one speaker. It is only a she and the I of the she. And though the back of the book proclaims this “Based on a true story,” you get the sense that the story—which is variable, sometimes of Margaret and Tambling, sometimes of a woman called to God, sometimes two brothers, sometimes lovers on a boat, sometimes an artist, sometimes a driver on a highway—is not a single person’s story. You learn early in the book, after a macabre dream sequence involving a road-kill dear with a radio in its gut, that “This story takes place everywhere” (22), and later, the narrator says, “People devote their lives—they start on a course…/ Now that I’m here, I could be anyone” (53). Even the name of Tambling’s love—and the protagonist of the ballad the themes are based around—is unclear: She is called “Margaret (in other versions, Janet, or Jennet)” (4). She, like everything, is shifting.

And this character, uncertain though she is, must literally grapple with the changing, variable forms. Margaret/Janet/Jennet and the reader both have to hold on while the text and Tambling are “turned into a lion, then a snake, a red-hot coal or bar of iron, and finally into a naked man” (5). With so many twists and turns in style it is easy to get lost in the fractured story, just as Margaret gets lost in the woods of the ballad. But ultimately, it is that wandering, that lostness, and that fracture which is the art and recompense of the book. Although the reader can never be sure just where she is in the layers and layers of stories and verse woven here, she can know that something larger is building, and that there is always something coming around the corner. This is the art, this is what makes the piece “not autobiography, but about biography” (159). The artful auto– is in the authors selections, the juxtapositions of voices and stories.

In the prose that starts the “act” chapter, Greenstreet tells us that she made her first art through sticks and rocks she found in the street. “This was almost an impulse towards sculpture, but I thought of my structures as altars, or shrines. I always had an urge to put things together that didn’t belong with each other until they were arranged, by me, in just the right way” (34). And you can be assured that the arrangement is perfect. Although that photograph of the pre-constructed book comes only after you’ve read with a reckless pace you didn’t know belonged to the realm of poetry, when you are still in a dizzy revelry coming off the last line about her having a “sisterly” relationship with despair, you do see the book in its entirety, guts splayed like the dead deer at the opening of the book, and you realize that every line on each page and each page next to the other, and each section stitched just so has been carefully placed, an altar or a shrine. To what, though? The answer to that is hinted at earlier in the text:

The dream of art.
The dream of the body.

Is there any other dream? (62)

If I have made the text seem huge and unwieldy, then I have adequately described the feel of the words, though the book itself is thin and the lines sparse on the page. While the themes are also weighty—womanhood, voice, memory, death, body, holy callings, rape (or is it love, or is it “just a sex thing?”)—you are guided through them deftly and with a masterful hand. You will be left wondering, you will have to stop and think. But you can be assured of two things: First, as Greenstreet’s quote from Amiri Baraka states, “Everything we dont [sic] understand/is explained/in Art” (157). Second, grappling with that uncertainty will leave you charged and seeking. For, while this book was certainly the most perplexing one I have read all year, it is also the only one I immediately started rereading as soon as I had finished, and the only one that stuck in my thoughts for days afterwards.

Young Tambling is available from Ahasahta Press

Scott Russell Morris lives in Lubbock, TX, where he is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His essays have appeared in BrevityProximityBlue Lyra Review, andStone Voices. He is mildly obsessed with squirrels and even just today bought another squirrel ornament for the squirrel-ornament tree he will decorate with at Christmas.

Further Adventures of My Nose by John Surowiecki

Screen shot 2014-07-01 at 6.00.52 PMThe pleasure and mystery of poetry is that very few people ask if the poems are “fiction” or “nonfiction.” Poems are “poetry” which is sometimes fact and sometimes not, and in the best poetry, it is both at the same time: imagining and life all combined skillfully in words and lines. This is perhaps why poetry is sometimes seen as one of the high arts, its ability to mix and match and blend and blur makes it the most adaptable, the most elusive, and the most satisfactory. But, we should remember, poetry isn’t really a genre. It is a form, one which allows all the genres, whether realistic or fantastic. Often both, as is the case in John Surowiecki’s Further Adventures of My Nose, where dreams, science, observation, and imagination all combine into one story.

On the surface, Further Adventures of My Nose tells the story of a cancerous nose who decides to see the world and so “thumbing himself at” the speaker, up and leaves (11), though he still maintains a friendly correspondence, sending emails from his travels to the Great Pyramids, the Dead Sea, England, and under the bed. Meanwhile, the narrator, still in hospital, meditates on life without a nose and also on the various voices coming from adjacent rooms. Voices of loss, voices of ecstasy, the voices of those suffering around him.

From the title to the last page, is a strange and delightful chapbook, filled with verse that walks a fine line between comic and tragic. Accompanied by Terry Rentzepis’s darkly whimsical illustrations, the whole collection is a delight, the sort of book you’ll pick up to browse and, without consciously deciding to do so, finish all in one sitting. Each poem leads into the next, playful and serious to the last, until the adventure ends.

And it is an adventure, though Surowiecki’s musings are interrupted often by daydreams of Kings and sex and topographies. It is clear that the world without a nose is different than the one where he and his nose were one: “Either everything exists except my nose/or nothing exists except my nose which/somehow amounts to the same thing” (19). In this “darkness of another kind/…lilacs & the ocean/ are only sad movies of themselves” (17). Like the illustrations that accompany the poems, the world of the poems is muted and hushed, having lost the edge when the nose departed. But in this muted world, there are some moments of shining, though the brilliance often accompanies further disjointing. In “Chemotherapy,” we learn that “It ran though the veins & arteries/ like gasoline, cold but capable of fire./My nose thought he’d become a god!” (35). The godhood, obviously, is only an illusion, as are most of the other moments of home, which almost always come in the daydreams. In “Daydream No. 3: Y_______ and the KofS” a cellist appears and plays on stage, gathering “royal applause, but as if for me/ as if for me!!!!!!” (36).

Besides being a moment of emotion in the otherwise coy piece, the line above is also a good indication of the book’s poetic style. The “Y__________” in the title is the name of the cellist, who also appears another poem and an illustration, but who’s name we’re not told. There are other blanks in the poems, names of diseases and natural treasures, often in lists, populated partly in face and partly in imagination are we’re asked to fill the spaces ourselves. The line above also shows Surowiecki’s knack for abbreviations; here “KofS” is for King of Spain, another character that appears in the daydreams, but indicative of the style, where the poet uses “&” and “w/o” and “yrs” intermittently, echoing the letters he receives from his nose, reminding us that these poems are all missives of one sort of the other. The exclamation points, too, evidence the enthusiasm that goes into every line of Surowiecki’s poetry, an enthusiasm that surpasses the traditional bounds of poetry.

Readers will be happy to know the adventure ends happy for all involved: The narrator and the nose are reunited, the cancer (named Herr Timple) moves to Canada and starts a family, the men in the other rooms all go home, the cellist remarries. “They’re all right/…/Everything’s all right. In fact, everything/can’t be anything but all right” (48). But then again, poetry cannot be just one thing. While we readers are happy for the happy ending, the happy ending isn’t where it ends. Instead, he goes one poem more to remind us that things will not last. The bad will be cured, but, “You know, it really lasts only so long——/———— this new appreciation for life” (49).

Further Adventures of My Nose is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse

Scott Russell Morris lives in Lubbock, TX, where he is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Proximity, Blue Lyra Review, and Stone Voices. He is mildly obsessed with squirrels and even just today bought another squirrel ornament for the squirrel-ornament tree he will decorate with at Christmas.