Briefly Noted – April 22, 2015

Quick-to-Read Reviews

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Vol. 4 Issue 2. April 22, 2015. Ed. Paul Clark.

Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older | Reviewed by Sarah Mack

The Cartographer's Ink by Okla Elliott | Reviewed by Maggie Smith

Vulgar Remedies by Anna JourneyReviewed by Maggie Trapp

Daniel José Older. Salsa Nocturna. Crossed Genres Publications, 2012.

Daniel José Older’s debut collection of “ghost noir” short stories weave a genuine emotional tapestry of love and loss, of anger and acceptance, and of choosing between what’s right and what’s easy.  The stories run through a relatively large cast of characters, but nearly all of them show up for more than one story.  There aren’t so many characters that the various ghosts and mediums are difficult to keep track of, and those that return to later stories do so either soon enough or often enough that their names and backgrounds remain familiar.  Carlos Delacruz, a half-dead, half-resurrected Fixer for the New York Council of the Dead (NYCOD), features most predominantly within the collection.  He has no memory of his past, and so both he and the reader come to know him primarily through the difficult decisions he faces.  We find that time and time again, it is someone to anchor his humanity and to remind him that he isn’t alone in the afterlife that he seeks.  Friendship plays a dominant role throughout the collection and gives the action and occasionally-forced ghost politicking a heartwarming edge. Sarah Mack

Okla Elliott. The Cartographer's Ink. NYQ Books, 2014.

In The Cartographer’s Ink, Okla Elliott’s first full-length collection, we encounter poems with the qualities of light, or rather, poems that do light’s work: illuminating and revealing, but not without shadow. As Elliott writes in “The Light Here”:

It is a light I could live in
if I came to terms with certain failings

in my character
and the character of others.

I know you have light where you are,
better light even,

but I wanted you to know
about the light here.

Here we encounter speakers who are well travelled and well versed in philosophy and literature, but who do not live charmed lives. Is there anything more human than that pervasive ache to be satisfied with one’s singular life, “to be able to say finally and honestly / that I want to live / in the time I am in, as the person / I am, with the facts and reasons / of myself broadcast all around me”? The titles of the poems (“The Name of Knowledge,” “The Philosophy Student,” “Reading Kierkegaard Near the St. Louis Arch”) indicate what’s at stake: nothing less than the Big Questions. Elliott’s finely crafted lyrics approach those questions with confidence, precision, and unapologetic frankness, as we see in “The Name of Knowledge,” which ends:

He sits
and he ponders two skulls:

the one on his desk, with its prehistoric secrets,
and that other one he has carried
with him everywhere.

These are poems whose “prehistoric secrets” we trust, poems that have earned our trust in them. Okla Elliott’s The Cartographer’s Ink is an excellent debut.Maggie Smith

Anna Journey. Vulgar Remedies. Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

Anna Journey’s new collection of poems, Vulgar Remedies, startles with its lucid, lovely, electric images. Journey’s poems are visceral, they crack and chirr. They draw you in with their singular images (a boy sucking the speaker’s eyeball, a fistulated cow, birds in the blood), and they keep you close with their lyrical, intimate tone. The poems seem spare, yet once inside them, you’ll find yourself transfixed, dizzy, off balance.

Journey uses language and image in a way that’s macabre yet playful. We read about wounds, bruises, fur, musk, heavy heat, insomnia, mothering, childhood, girlhood, old and new love, pulsing blood, calcification, nostalgia, and home. The poems are often about memories and growing up, and Journey allows us to feel the pain and surprise of it all.

In these poems we are often both inside and outside other bodies, particularly animals’ bodies. Journey presents a bestiary where her lyric I nimbly shifts shape. In “Hide and Seek with Time Machine,” the speaker remembers the day when her childhood cat, Pye, went missing and her mother found it in the bathtub:

…She finally

yanked back the bathroom’s shower curtain
and found our cat who’d stretched

out to drowse in the cool
of our claw-foot tub. I liked to pretend the griffin-

footed porcelain formed a magical animal. One
who’d let me climb in, until we shifted

into one species that prowled the hour
before bedtime.

The speaker here moves from finding the cat in the claw-foot tub to recalling how she used to pretend to enter into the animal-like tub and merge with it. This shape-shifting feels both childlike and deliberate, full of wish as well as divination, and causes the reader, too, to believe in magical thinking, to believe forms can transform, inside can become outside, the past can be captured and held. The poem becomes an elegy, a reverie about all that has been lost, and what is gained:

…Sometimes I sleep and think
I feel Pye step lightly up the rungs

of my spine. That’s when I return
to coil in the claw-foot tub, to sleep in its

hushed shape, and stay that way
as death drifts by,

calls our names, and remains
unable to find us.

Journey brings us into a world of impossible connection, a world where we can enter into other beings, and through them find ourselves closer to our own pasts.Maggie Trapp

Sarah Mack is a 2012 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and UC Santa Barbara.  Her fiction and poetry have been published in Gone Lawn, Into the Teeth of the Wind, and others. She can be found on Twitter at @whatsmacksaid. Maggie Smith is the author of The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015). Maggie Trapp teaches literature and writing for UC Berkeley Extension. She has a PhD in English, and she’s currently getting her MFA in writing. She is Extract(s) staff poetry reviewer.