Bryan R. Monte
AQ21 Spring 2018 Book Reviews
Jacob M. Appel. Millard Salter’s Last Day. Gallery Books, ISBN 978-1-5072-0408-5, 245 pages.
Arthur Allen. Here birds are. Green Bottle Press, ISBN 978-1-910804-09-4, 27 pages.
Alida Woods. Disturbing Borders. Finishing Line Press, ISBN 978-1-63534-405-9, 29 pages.
It is my privilege, as a reviewer and editor of poetry and fiction, to regularly make the acquaintance of many writers in the early stages of their careers. It is this discovery of new or not-so-completely-established writers that makes the hundreds of hours I put into Amsterdam Quarterly worthwhile. The three writers above (all former AQ contributors which makes me doubly proud, of course) have all, within the last few months, published beautiful, noteworthy books which I’d like to bring to the attention of AQ’s readers.
The first writer, Jacob M. Appel, is now, no longer a stranger to the publishing world. When I first met him almost coincidentally in New York City, in 2014, he had already published a few books, which had won some major awards. In the summer of 2014, I received an email from Appel asking if I’d like to review his books. Unknown to him, I was in Manhattan at that very moment to meet digital artist, Yolanda V. Fundora, (who would later contribute work for three AQ issues and two yearbook covers). As we met at the hotel’s street front café, I saw a young, (approximately twenty-years younger than I am), man wearing a name badge for a New York hospital. He stopped to give me three of his books: a novel, The Biology of Luck, an essay collection, Phoning Home and a short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper. I found him to be intelligent and articulate and I hoped the books he left for review would be the same.
And they were. Since then, Appel’s work has never ceased to surprise and delight me. His fiction, as I have remarked in past issues, reveals the work of a master storyteller. He grabs his audience on the first page and doesn’t let go of them until his intricately constructed plotting mousetrap artfully closes upon its victim on the last page. Millard Salter’s Last Day, is a perfect example of Appel’s fictive technique. It is about the life of a Jewish, New York doctor, a psychiatrist, who on the first page, expresses his desire to kill himself by the end of that day. This is due to the grief he has experienced after the loss of a second wife, whom he dearly loved, and a patient with whom he had a close relationship.
However, almost everything that Salter experiences that day seems to pull him back into the land of the living: a colleague at work, whom he hates, tells him she wants his position at the hospital when he retires. Salter’s first wife reveals that she doesn’t hate him for divorcing her because she was also having an affair and she makes a pass at him. So does a former schoolmate who is in town for more than one (she hopes) reunion. Later the same day, Salter’s luncheon conversation with his son, who, in his forties, has not make a life for himself, is interrupted by a gas explosion across the street which they both survive unscathed (except for a few scorch marks on Salter’s suit), but which seriously wounds the hospital administrator who just minutes before badgered Salter for an overdue report. Even a surprise 75th birthday party at his home, including friends and family, off foot him. Through all these events however, Salter continues his ‘Do I or don’t I’ meditation right to the very end. In the meantime, the reader gets a window into the current state of high-end medical and especially psychiatric care in America, ruled over not by doctors, but by hospital administrators. It is a world that is vividly rendered, where Appel adds one plot complication upon another until the novel’s very last scene. (Please, don’t read ahead, though, or you’ll ruin the ending for yourself).
The way I met the next writer, the poet Arthur Allen, is also fairly coincidental. Six or seven times a year I receive requests from university students enquiring about internships at Amsterdam Quarterly. Unfortunately, I must disappoint these young people with the news that AQ is not a business but rather therapeutic hobby for a disabled older man with multiple sclerosis. One of these students was Arthur Allen. I read through his résumé and wrote him: ‘Unfortunately, I don’t have an internship to offer you, but looking at your CV, I’ll bet you’ve got a few poems for me.’
And he did. He sent two poems, ‘On my father’ and ‘Unresolved harmonies,’ which I immediately knew I wanted to publish in AQ16’s issue on Interiors, Gardens, Landscapes and Music. When he attended the AQ 2016 Yearbook launch party, he read his poems from a journal in a hand with very few strikethroughs or other revisions. If I’ve ever met a natural-born poet, it’s certainly this young man. His chapbook, Here birds are is an excellent exploration of grief and intimacy related to the sudden death of one’s father caused by a hit and run driver. From the very beginning it addresses this grief through a description of how the father was found, ‘on his side, limbs like crushed cowslip flowers / tangled in the bicycle frame,’ to his mother’s unspoken grief witnessed when he was child: ‘She was siting gently / sinking without / sinking.’ In ‘The First Night,’ the poet asks: ‘the cosmos … “Why me?” … and it barely suffers to reply “Why not?”’
Allen continues to look for answers among the birds in the British countryside. In ‘Augury,’ he imagines his father’s body during autopsy as that of a bird’s: ‘gone / in wind, in perdu, insignificantly battered’ how the pathologists ‘opened and pinned a pair of wings… to relieve rigor mortis’ The poet’s loss of his father is further mentioned in the extended avian metaphor because ‘I do not know “the portent of the pitch / or direction of song,’ but the poet does know: ‘… it does not look like a man / asleep.’ ‘Poem after the manner of simple hearts’ describes the funeral and the mother and child visiting her husband’s/his father’s grave ‘The sky is bloody and violent.’ Allen’s thematic and imagistic concern with birds and bird metaphors in Here are birds is revealed halfway through the chapbook in its title poem’s epigram. Here Allen defines augury as “Interpreting the will of the gods by studying the patterns of birds, both from their flight, alites and their voice, oscines.” There is also the poet’s belief that ‘… Nature / cures Nature,’ in the next poem, father and his attempt to recover him, if not physically, then in his thoughts. In “Serenade” what Wallace Stevens, Schopenhauer and Mark Twain said all fail to comfort the poet who remarks: ‘What do they know anyway.’
The four-part poem, ‘From Amsterdam,’ towards the chapbook’s end, continues this conversation, but in a setting more familiar to AQ’s Dutch-resident readers and without the previous avian imagery. It also reveals some negative elements of the speaker’s relationship with his father. This poem begins with a letter addressed to G. with various dates which, in its first section, describes a night with friends in the Vondelpark in which he uses an extended arachnidan metaphor: ‘we hung in the / nets, strung out and dozing and everyone changing the / sound of my name in their mouths.’ In section I., the poet returns to the theme of his lost father, and his father’s perception of him as a ‘lazy’ because his ‘drawing in the sand with a stick’ wasn’t enough for his father. Now, writing in the Vondelpark his ‘notebook has become a sign of occupancy.’ In section II, even looking at ‘Picasso’s fish’ sculpture reminds him of his father’s absence. In the third section, a somewhat weaker section of this series, the poet describes ‘hot pancakes wrapped in his hand,’ which he wanted to ‘skim…into the canal like perfection reflections of the moon.’
The last poem in the collection reveals finally an intergenerational conflict between father and son which has gone on for three generations in which the poet describes ‘Bill,’ his grandfather ‘whose death was a scandal only to himself’ This rich, rhythmical poem with its very original images describes sometimes standard, generational, pendular personality type swings between father, son and grandson. The grandfather, like his grandson, was also called ‘lazy’ because he was a farmer who ‘wouldn’t hoe his corn / and lost to frost the lot he’d sown.’ The poet describes his grandfather as dead before he died ‘Scratched to death by his familiars,’ … grown white … put himself to bed / each night on butcher’s ice,’ … and his ‘coffin-varnished mind.’ These descriptions of his grandfather’s laziness and his preoccupation with death is also reflected in the poet’s own perceptions. It is perhaps a bit unfortunate that the poet didn’t explore his similarity with his grandfather a bit more and also their differences with their father/son. Nonetheless, collectively, these poems are the product of an inventive, intelligent mind trying to grieve, through art, about a parent’s sudden, tragic death and about what separated and connected him to his family whilst they were still alive.
Similarly to book above and all good books of poetry, Alida Woods’ book Disturbing Borders tries to cross the line or bridge the gap between what is said and not said, what is seen and what is only felt, and between life and death, mortality and immortality, through images from landscapes, home interiors and her family. I first became acquainted with Woods’ work at the Blue Flower Winter Writers’ Conference at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in January 2015. She attended a class led by internationally-renowned, multi-award winning poet, Carolyn Forché. During class, Woods read a poem entitled ‘The Clearing.’ I told her about AQ and asked if she would consider submitting the poem for AQ16, whose theme was Interiors, Gardens, Landscapes and Music. She promised she would, but like many promises made at conferences thousands of miles away, I wondered if she would actually send it.
And she did. I paired her poem with a digital image by Yolanda V. Fundora entitled Jockey Hollow #3. Her poem’s placement next to Fundora’s golden clearing received many positive comments from readers. In addition, I got to know Woods a bit more when she visited Amsterdam with her partner in April 2017 and attended AQ’s Writers’ Group. She told me at the time she was working on finishing a book of poems for a publisher. Disturbing Borders is that book.
This chapbook of twenty-seven introspective and meditative poems describes how desert, seacoast, suburban gardens, ageing parents and lost things transport the poet to places ‘beyond maps.’ In the book’s opening poem, ‘Crossing,’ she describes how watching her daughter carry her child reminds her of watching war refugees carry their children. She wonders how they will find ‘a place we called home.’ Then harkening back perhaps to a time early in human history, she writes about the necessity of human cooperation. ‘We will arrive carrying each other / across the river / across some faint line in the sand / or we will not arrive.” The theme of refugees is addressed in the next poem at the end after the speaker has lost a glove and remembers the effects of a flood: “three people downriver … or a boy and his mother crossing some border’.
In ‘Valley of Fire, Utah’ and ‘Folding Lesson’ she mentions the lost civilizations of the Aztec and the Wampanoag and relates them to lost parts of herself from her childhood in the second poem when she goes to visit her mother ‘in a home not is not her home’ or ‘in the village of the elderly’ as the poet refers to it in third poem entitled ‘Eighty seven.’ In ‘Peripheral Vision’ the poet relates her mother’s blindness to her own drive from the mountains into the valley where, because of a storm the poet reports it is ‘darker here and deep green’ and ‘I cannot see’.
In ‘Deadheading Daffodils,’ Woods writes how gardeners ‘create their own geography / careful boundaries drawn, / plots of obedient perennials / resurrecting each year’. In ‘Cartography’ Woods wonders where sleep and the unconscious take us: ‘Where we go at night after night / on this pilotless craft / heading beyond maps—’ Loss in represented in two poems, ‘The House of Forgetting’ and ‘Pigeon River Gorge,’ the first about the memories her mother’s house still holds after her death and the second about the slaughter of an entire species of hundreds of millions, the carrier pigeon, by American immigrants in a little more than a century. ‘In the Drawer’ the poet finds a letter her sister wrote to her ‘two days before she died’ but never sent, among a collection of pencils that have ‘reproduced in the drawer, / Chap Stick and three tubes of sun cream.’ It is a message that in: ‘Buried there’ it reminds her ‘that life is messy and unsharpened’. Framed by the event of an autumn dog walk, ‘The Clearing’ is meditative poem in which the reader can feel and see the dog’s ‘fur ripples in the brittle air / that draws us into this amber afternoon.’ This poem is about more than a dog walk. It contains an epiphany, perhaps with her mother’s and sister’s deaths in mind, when the poet notes ‘The moon lifts her belly up over the trees’ and ‘shadows reappear and ghosts speak softly’. Her mother’s shadow is specifically mentioned in the next poem, ‘In Your Mother’s House,’ in which there were ‘an abundance of things and a scarcity of love’. In the poem’s conclusion, the speaker’s mother’s shadow ‘slid onto / the pages of her / unwritten book’.
‘Dancing in Cassadaga,’ is about a visit to a psychic village that helps define another disturbed border in this collection. The psychic’s home décor and ambiance includes a talking bear ‘warning intruders / that crossing the line may / involve intricate encounters with poetry.’, ‘the smell of patchouli’ and ‘made in India drapery’. The psychic tells the poet about her children’s lives or characteristics in the present, the poet’s past life in Egypt and her advice for the poet’s future. “The Color of Morning” the chapbook’s terminal poem is located in some borderless time and place although it takes place in the poet’s hallway at 4 a.m. Here, the reader cannot be certain at first if the poet is describing an apparition of her mother in the hallway with her daughter, the poet herself, in her arms, or her own daughter with her grandchild. Once again, as in Allen’s collection’s terminal poem, the generations tumble one into other as a family travels through time, past, present and future, trying to find its way. AQ