The Quilliad Reviews: Louder Than Everything You Love by Nicole Rollender

This must be what love is:
a shining blade so exquisitely cut that after my throat is slit,
I still sing.

“On a Board Hewn for a Body”

nicole rollender cover
Nicole Rollender
‘s first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, published by ELJ Editions, is a beautiful and brutal book that explores love, sex, birth, death, and womanhood. A kind of tender violence pervades the text; filled with harsh truths, these intense and eloquent poems nevertheless serve to remind us not only of our mortality but of the precious nature of what little life we have:

You, the living
mother, shake salt from the table cloth, teach your
child to nest where it’s warm, tell your dead to head
toward whatever window is full of light.

“How to Talk to Your Dead Mother”

Women’s lives are often the focus in Louder Than Everything You Love. They experience the wonder of life growing within them, as the speaker details in “Psalm to Be Read While My Daughter Sleeps”: “how beautiful that she touched the inside of my uterus: / floated there, her jawbone, torso, skin, hand, hand forming”. They also know the many ways in which they will be used and expected to hold themselves back because of their sex: “women are told to diminish” (Fasting”). And yet, these women find release and voice and power: in good food, in poetry, in the connections between generations. And though they pass on, something continues; Rollender traces a matrilineal line through the speaker’s/speakers’ veins:

She’s learning what dead women / do: swim the blood of their daughters

[ . . . ]

She tiptoes up my spine in her / old slippers, knocking on every vertebra she sees.

“The Light Makes My Grandmother Cry”

Rollender’s collection explores death at length; the speaker and the reader feel it just under the surface of life. In “Prayer, as Ghost,” the speaker states, “Everything is the ghost of something else.” The past echoes; the present whispers of what came before and what will be (and what will cease to be). The speaker doesn’t only speak of the deaths of others; she is surrounded by her own memento mori: “my own ghost singing in my throat, turning its hourglass of snow.” (“Even the Living Can Haunt”) She acknowledges and confronts this reality throughout the text: “in cemeteries I ask how to die well: to part kindly with the women I’ll never become” (“Equinox”)

Despite speaking of hauntings, the speaker’s sense of death is made of flesh. This is no effervescent, ethereal retreat from the world. This is the haunting of veins, ghosts in the genes, a matrilineal legacy of peasant soup, not wispy spirit. The presence of the dead is embodied in those who share their blood. Despite speaking about a concept as abstract as death, the speaker provides concrete images: bones, birds, meals made by past women. Death’s physicality serves to remind us that it isn’t a bogeyman; it is a real loss we will all experience, again and again. Yet, far from being a hopeless tale, Louder Than Everything You Love gives us a speaker who feels life all the more keenly for thinking of its end. Many of her musings center not only around past generations but also her daughter, her line’s future.

The collection’s poems sometimes repeat themselves with similar ideas or images, but no poem truly stands out as redundant. The reader gets the sense that the speaker is rehashing ideas and dwelling on images to delve deeper and explore further rather than just repeat herself. And after all, don’t we all come back to thoughts of loss and meaning and connection, over and over, trying to eke out enough to sustain us?

Louder Than Everything You Love is unrelenting, both in its confrontation of our inevitable pain and death and its urging toward life. There is deep compassion within the raw lines of Rollender’s poems. Every poem seems to contain some line that resonates, with beauty and horror and honesty. This book tells us about our grief, not just the grief of the speaker, and it tells us about our love, too, which haunts and comforts us despite its inability to keep us safe.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Quilliad Reviews: Ginger Ko’s Motherlover

motherlover

Feathers stuck beneath your eyelids     don’t you dare rub them
Or you’ll spark your dry mind     on fire

“Starve the Beast”

Reading Motherlover, it’s clear that the speaker’s mind is alight. The voice is bold and in your face; the voice of a woman taking up space. Unexpected twists of language give energy to the poems: “Guts lined with wet fur that had never seen light” (from “Gaslight”); “The ground is softening: raising up the smell of offspring and ghosts.” (“Easter Egg”) The text is daring, purposefully so: “What would you do to my resting bitch face” (from “Gaslight”).

The first section, “Gaslight,” is straightforward, harsh, sometimes accusatory, combating the foggy, anxious experience of being the victim of gaslighting. The book as a whole embodies a struggle between love and selfhood, often reflecting on the challenges of being a woman with strong feelings and opinions while simultaneously having to live in relation to others:

No one ever listens when they ask
Except later when they crash into my words
And think they’re listening to themselves
I’m a daughter and used to remaining unmentioned

“Stay Away from my Windows No One is Welcome”

Much of the final section of the book, “Prairie Lighthouse,” remains difficult for me to parse. The lines sometimes feel haphazard, and many images feel either too personally specific or too abstract for me to connect to. But these poems are not without power, similar to, though structurally more wayward than, what came before.

There is still something radical and brave about unflattering honesty, and in a sense also a frank beauty to the vulnerability of statements like the opening lines of one of Ko’s “Night Signatures”: “My self-sufficiency has disappeared. I pick up five-dollar pulp books / when I buy cigarettes and I read them at home / in front of television talk shows.” There is so much evoked in these lines, a combination of loneliness and not giving a fuck that’s poignant and refreshing. The emotionality of the text is unapologetic; the cleverness of the lines is tempered by emotional depth.

I will not pretend to understand all of Motherlover. But what stays with me and touches me is liberating, a vulnerable voice speaking honestly of heartbreak and rebellion.

The Quilliad Reviews: Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women, Volume 1

MosaicsA literary exploration of femininity and womanhood, Mosaics approaches its subject matter through stories, poetry, essays, and art. The tales within its pages span across eras and genres. These varied approaches reflect the variety of perspectives contained within the anthology’s pages. This diversity is an intentional political act; the creators of Mosaics set out to produce a book that depicts the experience of women through an intersectional lens, and they’ve succeeded. From a girl with a glass heart to the erotic encounters of lesbian suffragettes, this anthology embraces a diversity of forms that women may take on.  Mosaics tells the tales of robots and the wheelchair-bound, folkloric monsters and Lillith.

If there is one flaw that I might take issue with, it would be that, at times, some of the stories are a little heavy-handed. Most of the time, Mosaics is an engaging and accessible read, but occasionally the stories take on a more didactic tone than is my preference, which takes away from the immersive quality of the narrative. The more nuanced tales still embody their politics, and I am thus left wishing all the stories could find that perfect balance.

That said, Mosaics is a well-written anthology compiled by women who aren’t afraid to imbue their work with political purpose, and there’s power in that. All proceeds go to charity (The Pixel Project to end Violence Against Women), so they are truly walking the walk. Between the valuable social message and the strong writing, Mosaics is a meaningful contribution to both literary and social discourse. You can find it on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.ca/Mosaics-Collection-Independent-Women-Anthology-ebook/dp/B01BW43VLW?tag=smarturl-ca-20

—Sarah

The Quilliad Reviews: Bird Watching at the End of the World by Lisa Mangini

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The Poetry Parrot’s approval is unsurprising.

Bird Watching at the End of the World does not shy away from hard conversations. Lisa Mangini’s  collection presents the reader with a series of portraits, impressions, and preservations of self in the face of trauma, illness, and other sources of emotional upheaval. The book is at its best when confronting brutal things, such as the specifics of the horrifying reality of being sick. “This is Your Body Speaking” is a particularly strong series that speaks of the ways the body can break.

In places, I wished to see the explanations stripped away to allow me to see with more focus the precise, unforgiving depictions of specific moments, acts, and sights. Mangini is clearly capable of powerful, vivid imagery and strong descriptions of very particular subjects:

“Consider the time you were age six, on errands
with your mother: the lollipop from the bank
melting into one round sliver on your tongue,
the cardboard stick fraying from your spit.”

(From “My Subconscious Reminds Me Not to Be too Optimistic”)

“Between the feral and the house of god:
the original pinata.”

(From “The Fate of the Bee Hive Discovered in the Convent Walls”)

Those poems that don’t make full use of this ability can feel plain, more prosaic than poetic, especially as sound and rhythm are not always prioritized. Yet there are places where this style works. In some cases, Mangini embraces this and writes prose poetry, which works more often than not once the reader catches on to the ongoing narrative. The poems in general become stronger toward the middle and end of the book. And the titular poem is worth the wait.

Overall, while speaking unflinchingly of death,  Bird Watching at the End of the World becomes more poignant and more alive the further you delve into Mangini’s collection.

 

The Quilliad Reviews: Awful Baby by Mary Lou Buschi

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You can find Awful Baby at http://www.redpainthill.com/#!mary-lou-buschi/skyvj. Image credit Red Paint Hill Press

Awful Baby is a dark book, but it would be flippant to simply call it sad. There is too much wit and craft here for that. This book is rich with strong images that shift between dreamy impressions and crisp, haunting memories. While these images are often quite specific, they draw the reader in. At times, reading this collection feels voyeuristic, as the speaker lets us in to her world, allowing us to see both her family’s love and their grief; at others, she holds back, allowing emotion to seep through the cracks in a seemingly calm and practical exterior.

Mary Lou Buschi has constructed a portrait of family life and childhood and used the powerful impressions made by both to explore the ways our upbringing and our identity intersect, as well as to explore the effects of loss. The normal becomes grotesque, both through the memories of pain experienced by the speaker’s family“To put up a tree means the family is well, happy”and through the surreal instructional poems such as “Today’s Objective,” “Purple Math,” and “Rounding.” Another such poem, “Beauty School,” shifts between practical advice (“Start at the temple, knead the skin with your index and middle fingers in a cross skating motion”) and eerie suggestions (“You will need to recant each bone before cutting her cuticles”). Whether she is examining our social rituals or showing us how our interpersonal memories form our sense of family (Tell me again about the time you shook me awake to make sure I was still breathing”, from “I hate and I love”), Buschi manages to both evoke emotion and offer psychological insight.

In “Mirror Box,” Buschi asks, “If a family is a body/how does the brain/deal with a missing limb?” This collection is a love letter and a study of how the parts of a family grow apart and together, and how our memories persist as we do, living with us whether we like it or not.

The Quilliad Reviews: Oregon Pacific by Nancy Slavin

imageSlavin’s collection is a tribute to the coastits histories, day-to-day dramas, and the power of the ocean. Nature is powerful here because of its adaptability, despite our interventions (and even invasions). Waves overwhelm the hapless road in “After the Storm”, while in “Landowner”, mold and mildew bloom in the speaker’s office. Our domination of nature is questioned, both its wisdom and its truth, and the relationship between the natural world and civilization is investigated throughout the collection. This relationship shifts many times, but it remains the focus.

Ultimately, nature mostly knows best in Oregon Pacific. In “Cape Meares Lake”, human industry is valuable in relation to its harmony with nature“I know you are man made / but some good has come of that”, while “Blues for the Birds” compares the complexities (and, it seems, foolishness) of human society with the straightforward instincts of birds. In “Cape Lookout”, as in many other pieces throughout the collection, nature is the setting for a spiritual quest. The speaker is in an in-between space, “[her] soul / again at that time of dusk where shadow meets shape”, her internal spiritual world mingling with the physical world, just as the civil connects with the natural. The speaker “walks the whole trail” in more ways than one, her “trial by fire” an emotional and spiritual journey as well as a walk amongst the trees, until “an ember of sun burns the tops of the evergreens [ . . . ] for that one brief joyous moment.” As occurs elsewhere in Oregon Pacific, this joy belongs to her and the natural world around her. Nature’s many incarnations are characters in themselves, often imbued with some level of pathetic fallacy, engaging in varying ways with the speaker’s emotions. Nature is a constant referent for the speaker, even when she is at odds with the natural rhythms of the world: “I am at the end of a cycle, / though it is summer, a world within me / dies.”

The collection is unified by its subject matter, with both formal and freeverse poems sitting side-by-side. Slavin moves mostly effortlessly between forms, though some rhymes are slightly singsong. This intense focus on the coast and the humannature relationship can sometimes make the poems within the collection blur together. Yet this strict attention, when combined with Slavin’s eye for details and the precision of her language, also renders the flora, fauna, and landscape within her poems whole and real with fresh images and loving specificity. One of my favourite pieces in the collection, “Communiqué“, offers this depiction of crows taking flight: “The flap of wings taps in one dark / hearbeat against the pale white sky until / the birds splinter apart, like buckshot spent / in all directions.” “Urchins” provides a similar level of insight into the space between land and sea: “Urchins, anemone, starfish, and mussels / at low ebb wait, exposed. Scarlet tendrils, / mouths chartreuse, clustered in colonies / bound together.” Overall, the reader is left with a strong sense of place and the intensity of the impression that the North Oregon coast has left on the poet.

Sarah

The Quilliad Reviews Michalle Gould’s Resurrection Party

Michalle Gould’s Resurrection Party

Michalle Gould’s Resurrection Party

Reviewing this book weeks before Halloween seems particularly appropriate; All Hallow’s Eve is, on some level, still about grappling with the spectre of the bones under our skin, while also celebrating the excitement of going out into the dark. While the poems in Michalle Gould‘s Resurrection Party are often about death, this book is very much alivea rare book that justifies its exclamation points. It is dark, yet filled with whimsy and weirdness. The dancing skeletons on the cover are only the beginning.

While I’ve read many beautiful poems, I’ve read fewer that are beautifully crafted and funny. But many of Gould’s poems are just that, ranging from witty to comical. This humour rarely shouts at us; rather, it winks, as in “Untitled”, which begins, “This was supposed to be a landscape without a person in it, / but there you arethat tree slouches the way you do.” Subtle humour is mixed with contemplation and a sort of longing: “Those broad leaves [ . . . ] They are wounded, then lost, then there they are again! / It must be nice to have such an endless capacity for renewal.” The subject matter of each poemwhether it be death, religion, classic literature, or dinosaursis approached without reverence, but the text stops short of mockery. Instead, these poems are filled with empathetic verse that seeks connection and offers up fresh perspectives. With titles like “Self-Portrait as a Rare Book Exhibited at a Museum in England” and “Self Portrait as a Pair of Lovebirds”, her self portrait poems are good examples of her ability to twist around to look at something anew, creating a strange relationship between observer and observed (who is the self in these poems, after all?) worth investigating.

These curious poems are succinct; most are less than a page, and the rhyme interspersed throughout binds some of the shortest pieces together tighter still. The poem that begins the collection, “How Not to Need Resurrection”, sets the tone well, beginning with “Children like to play at death / they hold their breath” and evolving into a fast-paced, clever poem that deliberately skims across the subject of mortality, the hints of a nursery-rhyme sensibility both evading and hinting at the fear that these children have not yet grown into. The collection continues to dance with death to its very last page, sometimes drawing close, at other times twirling away into discussions of Spring and rectangles. As a reader, I enjoyed every cleverly choreographed step.

Sarah

logo roundP.S. If you’d like to see more content from The Quilliad Press, please consider backing our Kickstarter (we’re a staff pick!). In addition to our small press book reviews, we post project spotlights, artist profiles, parrot poetry, and coverage of local arts and literary events. We also publish a literary and arts journal, The Quilliad, and are planning a line of chapbooks. Our crowdfunding campaign is 50% funded with 6 days to go. Any support is appreciated.

The Quilliad Reviews Lisa C. Taylor’s Growing a New Tail

Growing a New Tail by Lisa C. Taylor

Growing a New Tail by Lisa C. Taylor

Much like their characters, the stories in Lisa C. Taylor’s Growing a New Tail are full of potential. Some are fully realised, while others feel as if they are not quite finished.

One of my favourite stories in the collection, in which the potential is realised, is the final piece, “Leash Laws”. Here, many of Taylor’s best qualities as a writer are on display. She fully inhabits the narrator’s world in a psychiatric hospital—and, more impressively, her mind—without condescension or a sense of voyeurism. For the duration of “Leash Laws”, she believes in the world as it exists for the protagonist, and the story—and the reader—are better for it. My favourite line in the piece occurs on the first page of the story and sets the tone: “No one knows when his or her tree-time will come.” The language is strong here, existing in sympathy with the protagonist. “Earthy Top Note”, a story that takes on the perspective of a dead man from a very unusual angle, similarly shows what Taylor can do when she follows through with an idea.

Many of the other stories feature the same attention to detail and interest in their characters, but they suffer from rushed or abrupt endings. The climaxes of such stories take the reader by surprise, and while this structure furthers the plot in some cases, when used so frequently, it loses its freshness. The reasoning for this structure is clear—these are characters about to change their lives or experiencing a moment of epiphany. Yet in stories like “Visible Wounds”, for example, the story cuts off shortly after it piques my interest. Much of the story up to that point feels like setup, but the reader never sees the main action. The brevity of the story requires the narrative to fit too much information into too little space, leading to more telling than showing—which, though eloquent, makes some passages feel too on-the-nose.

Overall, the collection benefits significantly from Taylor’s poetic writing background and observational skills, with the source of most issues being either plot structure or an otherwise not fully fleshed out concept. I am left with an impression of a series of story ideas, some of which are expanded upon fully and meet their mark, while others could use more development.

The Quilliad Reviews Ellen Kombiyil’s Histories of the Future Perfect

Riff Raff and Histories of the Future PerfectAs the title suggests, Histories of the Future Perfect focusses largely on memory and history, and more generally on time itself. Memories of childhood and the dead are interspersed with accounts of the imagined experiences of mythical, literary, and historical figures as diverse as Persephone, Juliet, and Mary Todd Lincoln. Captured moments from the past and future and loops of experience fill these pages.

Written in verse that flows and skips from line to line, favouring enjambment and plain speech (though not lacking literary flair), these poems are open to the reader. They bring the universal (quite literally, when the poems discuss the sun and outer space) down to the individual level. The whole world becomes the speaker’s world, a singular subjectivity defining all: “the whole world/spins when I spin” (“On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”). This movement from macrocosm to microcosm (and sometimes back again) takes many forms. Kombiyil takes scientific discourse and renders it colloquial: “If in moonlight Y flings a beer, then I in unison flick my hair” (“Outgrowing: an equation”), and time ceases to hold its shape in “a place where sea once covered/my bones and a sequined girl/circumnavigates trilobites etched in stone” (“On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”).

All this is done with an underlying awareness of a distortion of scale (the line quoted above ends “or their illusion”). I cannot speak with authority on the accuracy of some of the scientific imagery, and the scientifically minded reader may find the application of such imagery somewhat liberal in some cases. This is, after all, a poetry book, not a textbook, and one that uses all source material to express feelings rather than hard fact. Kombiyil draws on eclectic sources, from entropy to tarot, and uses them to construct the universe of the poems however she chooses.

Overall, this equation of macrocosm and microcosm, science and personal reflection works, particularly in pieces like “Wave Oscillation as Time Loop”, where swimsuit bottoms and astronauts inhabit the same poem. The simultaneous suspensions of immersion in water, outer space, and time feel like appropriate, almost necessary, parallels: “sun flanked by black it flashes past/spinning before reentry”. An ambitious and intriguing collection, Histories of the Future Perfect is worth a read.

-Sarah

The Quilliad reviews Adam Abbas’s A State, A Statue, A Statute

ASASAS reviewThe Quilliad continues to review small press books, and today’s offering is Adam Abbas’s A State, A Statue, A Statute, published by Steel Bananas. A mix of formal poetry and digressions into highly rhythmic prose poems, Abbas’s book is a complex—sometimes difficult—and technically impressive read that sometimes becomes too opaque for comprehension but retains an elegance of form throughout.

Part I is composed of sestinas, villanelles, and prose poems. The sestinas and villanelles are clearly constructed with care—the rhymes emerge naturally, and the author can turn an eloquent phrase. Many of these pieces contain examinations of memory and moments of poignant melancholy, unfortunately sometimes obscured by the obscurity of much of the text. That said, Abbas clearly knows his craft.

My feelings about the prose poems are similar. Allusions and (pop) culture references abound, both hinting at themes and bewildering in their variety. Odd juxtapositions resist interpretation—a “Berber Gerber baby”, dryads, “the Hymn of the Hyena’s Hymen”, and the cross-dressing “Chris Christ [ . . . ] with his Stockholm Syndrome” all jostle for space within “Supper as the Linoleum Curls”. These poems are held together with relentless rhyme and a rhythm that both exhilarates and leaves the reader feeling a little rushed. Each sentence is stretched beyond its grammatical limits, creating a sense of urgency that makes events and characters blur. Caught up in the flow of words, it’s hard to pause long enough to grasp what’s happening, and even closer examination can leave the reader none the wiser. In some ways, it’s like reading T.S. Eliot again, with that sense of having missed the point because the references are too diverse to follow while conceding that everything must somehow fit together. As a fellow reviewer has pointed out, these poems are reminiscent of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, and in the same way that one can simultaneously appreciate the linguistic acrobatics of Bök’s writing and be frustrated by the distance between the words and a comprehensible meaning, I found myself admitting Abbas’s talent while wishing I could find something just a little more solid to hold onto in these poems. I’m still unsure as to whether all the sound and fury signifies anything.

As the collection continues, however, the reading gets easier. Part two is a bit of a breather, with poems that clearly state their focus if not their purpose. The section’s opening poem about the writer’s place in the world and a piece on family ground the collection in a more recognizable voice. “Poem for Sammy Yatim” brings the political undertones of the collection to the forefront, finally voicing the discontent that whispers throughout the beginning of the collection. Part three returns to formal constraints, opening with a ghazal that lets us further into the speaker’s psyche and continues the theme of memory and loss. While still challenging, the pieces in this section are rendered more accessible by their form rather than less, as sequences of couplets give the reader time to absorb each line. Echoes of the playful strangeness of the earlier prose poems are tempered by a more meditative, less frenzied rhythm. The beginning of “Bailey”, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, is dark and quirky, showing off Abbas’s taste for the bizarre while supplying the narrative so yearned for and denied in the prose poems: “The family went outside as it snowed softly/And the drunken father sang an ode softly/For their pet spadefoot toad who died of wanderlust/Whose gorgeous eyes always glowed softly”.

In the final section, several pages of haikus and haiku-like stanzas form a fragmentary and evocative poem. While the earlier prose poems suggest but do not deliver a coherent narrative, the haiku’s brevity encourages contemplation, while extra spaces between stanzas seem to reassure: there will be gaps in your knowledge, and that is simply part of the experience.

While the opening section of A State, A Statue, A Statute can be daunting to approach, persistent readers will be rewarded. I’d recommend this book specifically to those who appreciate formal poetry and the merits of playing with constraints.

If you have a book of poetry or prose published by a small press that you’d like us to review, please contact us at thequilliad@gmail.com to discuss the possibility.

-Sarah