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The Prairie Schooner Blog

Briefly Noted - August 2014

Quick-to-Read Monthly Reviews

Vol. 3 Issue 5. August 2014. Ed. Paul Clark.

Return to My Native Land by Aimé Césaire (trans. John Berger and Anna Bostock) | Reviewed by Daniel Larkins

Folly by David Axelrod | Reviewed by James Crews

The Youngest Butcher in Illinois by Robert Ostrom | Reviewed by Jeannie Vanasco


Aimé Césaire (trans. John Berger and Anna Bostock). Return to My Native Land. Archipelago Books, 2014

Reviewed by Daniel Larkins

I’ve always hated the phrase “Art for art’s sake,” and that’s why I like Aimé Césaire’s poem, Return to My Native Land.

“Art for art’s sake” posits a fallacy that something can be socially purposeful outside of its social context, the context in which its creator and audience exist. Can an idea be artistic, if it is only in one’s head?

In Archipelago’s new translation by John Berger and Anna Bostock, Césaire sings a song so sensual it lives on one’s tongue and skin.       

Ringed islands, only lovely keel
I caress you with my ocean hands. I swing you round
with my trade-wind words. I lick you
with my algae tongues.
I raid you without thought of gain.

The poem is a song to what one’s homeland can be, should be, or was. Throughout the first half of the poem, Césaire repeats, “At the end of the small hours,” echoing for readers great expectations and unrequited yearnings for a kind of re-appropriation.       

…My island, my non-enclosure,
whose bright courage stands at the back of my polynesia; in front,
Guadelupe split in two by its dorsal ridge and as wretched as
we ourselves; Haiti where negritude rose to its feet for the first
time and said it believed in its own humanity; and the comic little
tail of Florida where they are just finishing strangling a Negro;

With a voice that is at once sharp and magical, Césaire critiques the absurdity of the simultaneous impossibility and essentiality of acknowledging one’s identity. At once lyrical and visceral, perhaps only a refugee can write this severe a level of fatal acceptance.      

Listen to the white world
appallingly weary from its immense effort
the crack of its joints rebelling under the hardness of the stars
listen to the proclaimed victories which trumpet their defeats
listen to their grandiose alibis (stumbling so lamely)

Like the Syrian poet Adonis, Césaire wields a voice that is bursting, a voice that speaks for a people, and all people. Return to My Native Land is a poem with such passion that one will want to read it with others, in a circle, as if praying to a god that hasn’t yet been born.

David Axelrod. Folly. University of Washington Press, 2014

Reviewed by James Crews

David Axelrod's latest collection of poetry is a full interrogation of our human confusions. As in his past work, Axelrod is still asking the most essential question: "All this going to sleep and then/waking up, what does it come to?" Though many of these poems are odes to transience, Axelrod strikes a balance between the stark realities we face and those few small moments that make existence worthwhile. Whether he's making love at the Day's End Motel, contemplating "the juicy flesh of Brandywine tomatoes," or leaving behind those apples that "remain always just out of reach" as a kind of "tithe" for the bounty he's already claimed, this speaker knows how to tease transcendence out of every given moment.

Indeed, Axelrod's fierce and brutally realistic poems remind me over and over of the great Polish poets of the twentieth century, Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz, who always found the hidden, concrete, sometimes ironic beauty of everyday life. One sees this impulse especially in "The Disquiet," in which he tells us of a long-lost relative "from Beyond the Pale," who has tracked him down:

David Axelrod's latest collection of poetry is a full interrogation of our human confusions As in his past work, Axelrod is still asking the most essential question: "All this going to sleep and then/waking up, what does it come to?" Though many of these poems are odes to transience, Axelrod strikes a balance between the stark realities we face and those few small moments that make existence worthwhile. Whether he's making love at the Day's End Motel, contemplating "the juicy flesh of Brandywine tomatoes," or leaving behind those apples that "remain always just out of reach" as a kind of "tithe" for the bounty he's already claimed, this speaker knows how to tease transcendence out of every given moment.

Indeed, Axelrod's fierce and brutally realistic poems remind me over and over of the great Polish poets of the twentieth century, Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz, who always found the hidden, concrete, sometimes ironic beauty of everyday life. One sees this impulse especially in "The Disquiet," in which he tells us of a long-lost relative "from Beyond the Pale," who has tracked him down:

. . . A maiden aunt in wig
and headscarf disembarks, out-at-the-elbows
in three layers of moth-eaten wool, slaps
her forehead, lifts her hands to the sky, pulls
my face down close to hers, and says, "Kinnehora!
After all the shit of the world, you're still one of us."

Each of these poems utters its own version of kinnehora, the Yiddish "curse in reverse," said to ward off the evil eye. Though life has scattered us across the globe, and tragedy might strike at any moment, Axelrod urges us to seek out earthly pleasure while we still can. He trains our gaze on the plainer but no less astonishing things of this world by turning our attention toward both suffering and joy. There is no escaping the pain of being human, but as he writes toward the end of this timeless collection: "How alive our bodies are! The ache is lasting and wonderful."

Each of these poems utters its own version of kinnehora, the Yiddish "curse in reverse," said to ward off the evil eye. Though life has scattered us across the globe, and tragedy might strike at any moment, Axelrod urges us to seek out earthly pleasure while we still can. He trains our gaze on the plainer but no less astonishing things of this world by turning our attention toward both suffering and joy. There is no escaping the pain of being human, but as he writes toward the end of this timeless collection: "How alive our bodies are! The ache is lasting and wonderful."

Robert Ostrom. The Youngest Butcher in IllinoisYesYes Books, 2012

Reviewed by Jeannie Vanasco

Mallarmé preached mystery in poems; he suggested poets remove the links that anchor the poem to its occasion in the real world. In The Youngest Butcher in Illinois, Robert Ostrom's first full-length poetry collection, Ostrom removed the links and sometimes the line breaks. Titles and images repeat. The result: reported events fragmented into dream logic.

Half in lines and half in prose, the book coheres because of, rather than in spite of, its formal mystery. With their startling juxtapositions, the poems near Surrealism, but the packrat tendencies err toward objects with a shared past: a grandmother’s pendant, a piece of ribbon, round-cornered vacation photos, a hoop earring with no back. This methodical mess of salvaged relics evoke nostalgia, defined by Ostrom as “the distance a sigh / travels before reaching its source.” And yet this literary assemblage of family history reveals little about the family. Reading the book is like peering into a stranger’s curio cabinet. Why are kitchen shears and a cinnamon quill together? As Ostrom writes, “I am not going to make this easy for you.”

At the book’s deliberately abstracted core is grief. Ostrom renders this intense emotion with aching lyricism and dispassionate precision. In prose: “this is the sound of a man ripping all the doors from a house (it’s just his way of saying he misses you). How he loves to watch us swim in those round-cornered photographs.” The speaker experiences “the sound of your body molting; a horse or you drown in one vacation after another, colorless.” In lines, Ostrom references the photograph (“sepia scene”), the attempted or metaphorical drowning (“deluge”), and the real or metaphorical death (“camphor,” common in embalming). The version in lines lacks final punctuation; there is no closure.

The Youngest Butcher in Illinois is not a collection of neatly packed self-contained poems. These poems speak to one another, depend on one another, and the artifice—the enviable language, elliptical style, and deliberately vague narrative—creates meaning not meant to be fully comprehended. It’s human to expect understanding. It’s harder to accept mystery.


Daniel Larkins is a writer and teacher from New Jersey. His work has been in New Ohio Review, BorderSenses, New Politics, and a number of blogs. James Crews is the author of The Book of What Stays, winner of the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Poetry. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares and The New Republic, and he is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. Jeannie Vanasco is a 2014 Emerging Poets Fellow at Poets House and a 2014 recipient of the Amy Prize from Poets & Writers. She teaches undergraduate creative writing and the history of the English language at Hunter College. 


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