Briefly Noted – August 2013

Monthly book reviews in brief from the staff of Prairie Schooner and associates

Filed under: Blog, Briefly Noted |

Vol. 2 Issue 5. August 2013. Ed. James Madison Redd.

Incarnadine by Mary Szybist | Reviewed by James Crews

The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer by William Todd Seabrook | Reviewed by Jeff Alessandrelli

A Gentleman of Leisure [or The Intrusion of Jimmy] by P.G. Wodehouse | Reviewed by Jacqueline H. Harris (A Short-shrifted Review)

Diary of the One Swelling Sea by Jill McCabe Johnson | Reviewed by Jack Hill

Mary Szybist. Incarnadine. Graywolf Press, 2013.

Reviewed by James Crews

Reading through Mary Szybist's second collection of poetry, one gets the sense that she held onto each poem until it became as luminous and well-formed as a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly—both of this world, and otherworldly at the same time. The success of the collection rests not only on its cohesion and flawless arrangement, but also on its quiet playfulness with form. Unlike a lot of poetry published these days in which abstraction parades as experiment and risk, Szybist's work actually rewards with each subsequent reading, and even her most difficult poems remain accessible because they engage in the speaker's daily encounters with love, grief, and spirituality.

Yet whether or not Incarnadine, in spite of its subject matter, can be called a "spiritual book" is an open question. One of the standout pieces in the collection is "How (Not) to Speak of God," a shape poem that appears in the form of a sunburst with a blank circle at its center, each of its lines reaching out to the edge of the page. Here is a sample, though one must read the whole poem to experience its complexity as Szybist muses on the presence (or non-presence) of God:

who knows us in our burnished windshields as we pass

who remembers the honey-colored husks of the locust

who knows the scent of dust, the scent of each sparrow

For all the risks Szybist's poems take, the most traditional piece in the book, "Holy," is also the most powerful. In this poem, as the speaker sits in the hospital with her dying mother, she finds herself interrogating her own faith:

Spirit who knows me, I do not feel you

fall so far in me,

do not feel you turn in my dark center.

My mother is sick, and you

cannot help her.

This is stripped-down music wrung out of grief and doubt. The speaker wants to believe, wants the easy faith that might relieve the anguish of loss, even if temporarily since she knows it will not heal her mother. Szybist taps into those private places within herself and speaks to us with complete honesty. This is a poet who knows it is only through struggle and loss that we are able to touch something much larger, beyond ourselves, even if we cannot always feel or name it.

William Todd Seabrook. The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Firewheel Editions, 2012.

Reviewed by Jeff Alessandrelli

Winner of Firewheel Editions’ 2012 Chapbook Contest, William Todd Seabrook’s The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer is an aptly titled book, in the sense that A) being a pioneer in the revolutionary field of theoretical physics, as well as the “father of the atomic bomb” and modern nuclear warfare as we know it, by any and every definition of the word, J. Robert Oppenheimer was a genius; and B) the Oppenheimer figure that Seabrook presents to the reader is a Summa Cum Laude genius (aka “Summa Cum Oppenheimer”), someone whose powers simply cannot be tethered to our measly temporal world. In the course of the collection, Seabrook informs us that “J. Robert Oppenheimer died a number of times, a trait not unusual among geniuses”; that, under surveillance by the FBI, Oppenheimer was once found “in two locations at exactly the same time”; and that, near the end of his life, he wrote a paper “proving the existence of God,” one written “in over fifteen different languages, some of which Oppenheimer was not known to have spoken.” In each of its short, engrossing flash-fiction pieces, the reader is introduced to a different J. Robert Oppenheimer during a different period of his life, one nevertheless resolutely held together throughout the volume’s entirety via a certain two-syllable word: genius. As a child, Oppenheimer’s IQ is tested three times: the result of the first test is a “negative” IQ, the result of the second is an “imaginary” IQ, and the result of the third and final test is of course an “infinite” IQ. As a graduate student, Oppenheimer challenges Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg to a staring contest “to prove a peculiarity in Einstein’s relativity.” The result: a staring contest that lasts twenty years, eventually ending in Heisenberg’s defeat. As a prose stylist, Seabrook is an absurdist, trailing in the vein of such pioneers as Daniil Kharms and Donald Barthelme, and his J. Robert Oppenheimer possesses an acute otherworldliness that seduces and entrances from the book’s beginning to end. At the same time, however, he also exhibits tender, heartfelt, humanistic qualities—marriage, morality, mentorship—and the success of The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer is made manifest by virtue of this emotional duality. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Seabrook assures us, was a visionary, an iconoclast, a genius. He was also, at times, an actual human being—and it’s the latter quality that he is remembered for today as much as the former.

P. G. Wodehouse. A Gentleman of Leisure [or, The Intrusion of Jimmy]. W.J. Watt & Company, 1910.

Reviewed by Jacqueline H. Harris | A Short-shrifted Review

Upon beginning Wodehouse’s mystery, it is quickly evident that James Cameron’s Titanic appropriated not just history but also basic plot when a young vagabond bachelor, Jimmy Pitt, boards a transatlantic steamer as a second-class passenger only to fall in love with a first-class beauty he watches walk along the deck. When both time and family separate Wodehouse’s star-crossed lovers and they later reunite and proclaim mad love for each other on a rowboat during a fierce rainstorm in a Nicholas Sparks’ Notebook-style rendezvous, readers’ eyebrows will likely furrow as they wonder just how many authors and filmmakers owe the English novelist a generous thank you as they surreptitiously tuck their weighty billfolds in their back pockets. The answer: many. Beyond a tale of romance, Wodehouse’s narrative is a light-hearted yet multi-faceted detective story of thieves, would-be thieves, corrupt policemen, devious members of nobility, and the age-old love of capital. When Jimmy accepts a bet to pose as a thief and is then caught by his would-be lover’s father, the plot spirals into increasingly ridiculous situations as both men and women confuse factuality with farcical reality. More than one hundred years after its first publication, A Gentlemen of Leisure continues to entertain not because it defies the genre formulations of romance, comedy, and detective fiction, but because it helped define them.

Jill McCabe Johnson. Diary of the One Swelling Sea. MoonPath Press, 2013.

Reviewed by Jack Hill

Glut, secrete, hanker, thwop, snort, scamper, and slither are a few splashes of the brisk verbs Jill McCabe Johnson pairs with organisms and creatures, both minuscule (diatoms) and massive (humpback whales), in her new book, Diary of the One Swelling Sea. Through 49 brief poems, or diary entries composed by the sea, Johnson assembles a collage of senses and feelings that manifest a tangibly-sentient sea harboring equally sentient organisms: damsel fish, plankton, sea jellies, loggerhead turtles, osprey, scallops, squids, and anemones. Johnson depicts the sea's notions of pain and empathy in the poem, “Day Oil Spill,” writing,

Carapaces form on my surface.

Today's bubbled from beneath,

shooting blasts of black

thicker than octopus ink.

Wind and Mirror help me

slough scraps of the sludge-skin

onto the Dead Zone.

I endure,

but my lovelies, they suffer.

Diary of the One Swelling Sea evokes a wrenching reminder of why the sea must be loved, cherished, and protected.

James Crews won the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize with The Book of What Stays. He’s also authored three chapbooks, What Has Not Yet LeftBending the Knot, and One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes: A Poem After the Life and Work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and is currently an editorial assistant at Prairie Schooner. Jeff Alessandrelli lives in Portland, Oregon, with his dog, Beckett Long Snout. This Last Time Will Be The First, his first full-length collection of poetry, is forthcoming from Burnside Review Press in 2014. Jacqueline H. Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in nineteenth-century British literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She specializes in children’s and coming-of-age literature and has earned certifications in Women’s & Gender Studies and Nineteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Studies. Jack Hill is a creative writing M.A. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and edits Crossed Out Magazine.

Submission Guidelines:

The editors of Briefly Noted welcome submissions of short reviews from our readers. The series features short reviews of books published in 2012 or 2013; however, we occasionally publish short-shrifted reviews of significant older works under the radar. We're looking for reviews that are punchy and to the point, around 100 to 300 words. Send all submissions to with “Briefly Noted" in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you in brief!