GENEVIEVE KAPLAN Reviews
Fiddle is Flood by Lauren Gordon
(Blood Pudding Press, 2015)
a gunless tea by Marco Giovenale
The Goddess can be Recognized by her Step by Sarah Mangold
Tracks by Logan Ryan Smith
1. Lauren Gordon, Fiddle is Flood (Blood Pudding Press, 2015)
Fiddle is Flood begins almost earnestly, referring to images of “prairie grass” and “Pa’s fiddle,” but as we read on we realize Gordon isn’t just reminding us of old-fashioned country life, she is specifically evoking Laura Ingalls Wilder. Readers of the Little House series will be pleased to find “pretty strawberry / leaf molds,” “Ellen’s calf,” “Lazy Lousy Liza Jane,” “a doll made out of a corn cob,” and “blackbirds, baked in a pie” in Gordon’s volume. In the 22 poems in Fiddle is Flood Gordon does more than merely reference Wilder’s life and writings – speaking through a newly-voiced Laura, Gordon reframes and contemporizes her source material: “Almanzo all man / wants to know me,” she writes, and “my spirit grass / laid flatter than Minnie Driver’s chest.”
Those who have followed the Little House books and Ingalls family history will be aware of the deep losses sustained by the family on the prairie, and Gordon certainly doesn’t skirt over these sadnesses. In the first poem in the collection we learn that “Baby Freddie” “straightened out his little // body and was dead,” and later we are reminded that sister Mary “has stupid eyes, too.” We read about miscarriages, “tiny graves in cellars,” and Gordon adds new perspectives, emphasizing that “the old Indian” “has a name had a name once.” Even idolized Pa can’t escape this less-sanitized version of Laura’s life: “Pa was a butcher / and a judge / and a saint / and a boy,” and importantly, all these things simultaneously.
Gordon’s ability to make new and compelling poetry out of such a well-known prose series, adding her voice alongside Laura Ingalls Wilder’s, is impressive, and well-worth our consideration.
2. Marco Giovenale, a gunless tea (Dusie 2007)
Subtitled “[23 drafts from an undrained radon prosimetron trap],” we know from the title page that Giovenale’s text is going to be a little weird. Continuing through the chapbook, we find there is no “tea” in a gunless tea, but there are “ice cubes” and “a bowl of onions.” The “guns” are actually “knights Templar,” terrorism (“ahmed bush plotted to kill ahmed”), and “tyranny.” Additional themes include money, buying power, and foods; there is also technical language: “[complete] 333243 tpb web search,” Giovenale writes, “object. nonsubject [of t(f)].” And, there is quite a bit of nonsense, though this doesn’t mean the poems are not refined. In “naïve oven,” a prose poem in six parts, we see an attention to form, evidenced through innovative use of colons: “: you sure it will work? dude : sure : catch the triangle grapes : don’t use words any longer.” Too, the series “to the real defence of socrates” begins with a lettered and numbered poem:
01 n | the memorabilia that socrates might have been acquitted of
02 a | with me: this confounded socrates, they say; this villainous
03 b | hermogenes, the friend of socrates, that he had no wish to
04 c | a defence, and also that socrates himself declared this to
05 r | accustomed manner’ in which socrates spoke in ‘the agora and
The list of ideas progresses in an unaccustomed way, lacking subjects and objects, offering end quotes though a quotation—as far as we know—has never actually begun. In this poem Giovenale’s ordering form of letters and numbers calls attention to the constructedness of the lines that follow; the language included feels cut and pasted, assembled rather than necessarily written. Giovenale’s experiments throughout a gunless tea cumulate in what is essentially “a growing zen effect” of paradoxical language, repetition, variation, and contrast.
3. Sarah Mangold. The Goddess can be Recognized by her Step (Dusie 2014)
The Goddess can be Recognized by her Step consists of a single long poem which begins by introducing concepts borne out later in the book: “diorama / intimacy from artifice,” “peephole nostalgia,” and “Arrested moments of social relations.” The poem continues on to belie a preoccupation with animals, reproduction, “pregnancy and gestation / the promises of monster” but explored through “intense scientific work,” “memories,” and “symbolic transgressions.” Mangold reminds us that monsters are sympathetic creatures: “I do / not think of the monster / as without an unconscious.”
Mangold’s work is never predictable, and her poem unfolds through a number of images – “x-ray like vision / furs her landscape,” “trailing with frail young feet,” “separate sorts of plants / stand out before your eyes,” and “Gold-dust and rum” – that are punctuated by italicized sections. Lines like “Quotation marks verify the existence / of words in another reality” draw attention to their artifice through both the font style and the content expressed. We realize that one set of italicized lines, “Goodall and her mother made / 2000 spam sandwiches for // fleeing Belgians…,” comes directly from Donna Haraway’s essay “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others” (read it at Scribd). Recognizing this source text reminds us that, as Mangold writes, “Any monster is the absorption and transformation of another.” Even as the speaker of the poem protests to diminish her role – “I was only a beetle / and fetish hunter” –, it turns out that the “Goddess” “recognized by her step” in the title and the recurring monster within the poem, have much in common: Mangold continually insists that transformation and absorption make way for a new being and this slim volume becomes a beautiful sort of new being – a “companion monster” – in itself.
4. Tracks. Logan Ryan Smith. (Ypolita 2009)
The “tracks” in Smith’s chapbook are literal; the poems here describe “a station,” the “breath of exhaled air/ from…the tunnel / arriving / before each train,” the “tunnel glowing red…under the red earth,” “the INBOUND / and the OUTBOUND.” But the trains in Tracks are neither picturesque nor idealized, and it turns out that “on the tracks / the wheels crush the rat’s head.” We read how “the lights and mirrored / windows [reflect] my / loose jaw and dumb tongue / vibrating ceaselessly.” Smith does not let us turn away from the danger and horror that can happen underground, writing “Today / a woman was pushed into the tunnel.” The trains on Smith’s tracks are filled not only with “lepers draped in shrouds” but also populated by characters including Apollo and Hermes and Echo and Pan, who interact with and confront the narrator. “I DO NOT TRUST / THE LEPERS AND GODS / SURROUNDING ME,” the narrator shouts.
Smith’s content is bold, and Tracks is filled with many tragedies, many dreams, and many voices. More than the disturbing subject matter, though, what makes this chapbook worth reading are some of the author’s phrases, which linger in our heads. Lines like “bodies / trapped / in a light / flicker,” “all the lepers // glimmer,” or “my head, my neck, / the dark / and the light / dissolve” set an ominous mood, while showing attention to both sound and scene.
Genevieve Kaplan is the author of In the ice house (Red Hen Press, 2011), winner of the A Room of Her Own Foundation's poetry publication prize, and settings for these scenes (Convulsive Editions, 2013), a chapbook of continual erasures. She lives in southern California and edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, publishing contemporary translations of poetry and prose.