Book Reviews, 08/2013


This issue

Julie Marie Wade, Postage Due
Bennett Sims, A Questionable Shape
Daniel Bergner, What Do Women Want?
Carl Phillips, Silverchest
Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy
L. Annette Binder, Rise
Eric Pankey, Trace


Julie Marie Wade | Postage Due

Whit Pine Press, 2013

by Kevin O’Rourke

wadeAs anyone who has taken a poetry class or written a poetry review knows, when discussing what the author of a poem is doing in a poem, one is not supposed to refer directly to the author. Instead, the conceit of a poem’s “speaker” should be used. Referring to a more anonymous “speaker” instead of to the poet directly protects one from the possible embarrassment of assuming that a poem is about or is being told from the point of view of the writer, and not a character the poet has created (or persona adopted, &c).

But of course, as many readers of poetry will admit (save the dour, humorless New Critics), the exercise of pretending that poets are not writing about themselves is frequently foolish. For example, John Berryman used his Henry character extensively throughout the Dream Songs, but who was Henry but a reflection of Berryman’s personality? No no no, Berryman always insisted, the Dream Songs weren’t autobiographical. They were, according to Berryman himself, “about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry … who has suffered an irreversible loss.” The poems just so happened to be about an alcoholic whose father had killed himself (the “irreversible loss”), just like Berryman. To paraphrase the goofy, often laughable legalese that precedes many works of fiction, any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Nonsense.

Case in point: many of the poems in Julie Marie Wade’s Postage Due, the latest addition to the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, use an epistolary form. Moreover, the epistolary poems in PD take the form of personal letters, postcards, and confessional fan mail—Wade is not appropriating the stunted rhythms of business correspondence in her collection. Instead, Postage Due is packed with poems masquerading as personal letters, or the other way around.

This distinction is significant for the obvious reason that personal letters are personal; the personal letter is arguably the second most personal form of writing one can write, after diary entries. Personal letters are designed as intimate correspondence between the writer and her subject, especially so when there is only one recipient, in which case the letter can form a sort of private bond between the writer and the recipient. Moreover, when writing a personal letter, first person pronouns are used often, because the letters are intended to convey information about the writer.

More than 40 percent of the poems in PD, including many of the collection’s poem-letters, use “I” or “We” in either their title or first line. And the content of many of Wade’s poems, even those that don’t begin with a first person pronoun, seem to be highly honest and personal; the poems don’t feel like they are about a character Wade has constructed, but Wade herself. The book is as free of dissemblance as any I’ve read.

To be fair, one frequently sees the hand of the artist in PD; this is not a book of raw diary entries, but one of letters and prose poems and a few lined poems. The book is stripped of dissemblance but not artifice. For example, the letter-poems are addressed a variety of recipients (some of whom may be real?) — to the “Man I Almost Married”; two to Judy Garland; one to a “Woman I Once Loved”; a letter to Chester Greenwood, inventor of the earmuff; and several “postcards” to unrequited loves, parents, a pastor, and the Emerald City — but the effect is the same. By writing to Judy Garland, for example, in “Letter to Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale,” Wade is really using the letter’s occasion to say something about herself. The poem’s last lines reveal in a nicely indirect way Wade’s feelings about home:

But, Dorothy, a word about those ruby shoes: if they’re really yours, as
they were never mine:

Close your eyes, by all means; click your heels three times. There’s no
place like — no place like —

Say Helena. Say Galveston. Say Kalamazoo. Just promise you won’t say

This poem arrives almost midway through the book, after a series of pieces that discuss Wade’s homosexuality via reflections on growing up and sin, a frequent theme throughout the book. Indeed, Wade uses religious terminology freely throughout, naming the book’s sections “Lent,” “Pentecost,” “Advent,” and “Epiphany.” But religion is not always treated with reverence — instead, much of PD’s narrative is about Wade’s (or Wade’s character, whatever) growing increasingly disenchanted with religion, something she feels “is holding me back,” according the middle section of “Triptych,” one of the book’s longest pieces, and one comprised of three letters written in 1991, 1997, and 1999, to characters played by Mary Tyler Moore. “Triptych” is one of the stronger poems in PD, and its progression of letters across time shows Wade’s growth from someone who would “like to be a wife & mother” in 1991 to a sophomore in college in 1999 who feels “humbled by how little I actually know, & I feel confused by how I thought I knew more than this.”

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this book isn’t really about Wade, and to assume that these poems are is ridiculous and does the book a disservice. If so, I suppose I’ll look like a fool. But I don’t think I’m wrong, and moreover am not sure it matters how factually true Postage Due’s poems are: their sentiment is nakedly honest, and that’s what makes the book compelling. Sure, it goes on too long, and not every poem is equally effective, but the fact remains that Wade’s choice to use “I” so often, and to reveal intimate details about herself and her feelings, (occasionally signing the “letters” with her own name), lends this book an air of forthright honesty that is lacking in many books of poetry. Too often, poems can seem as if their writer has set out to make them intentionally difficult and obtuse, as if communicating with one’s audience through an infrequently read and unpopular form wasn’t difficult enough. Wade takes a different approach: she presents her readers with recognizable, recognizably useful forms of writing, and once she’s hooked them reels them in with lines like those that close “Bridges (Or a Letter to a Woman I Once Loved)”:

Here in the snow I write your name & watch the sky erase it. And then,
being only a poet & lost for words, do all that I can do. Quietly.




Bennett Sims | A Questionable Shape

Two Dollar Radio, 2013

by Brian Gebhart

TDR_BookCover_aquestionableshape_grandeIt is clear from the beginning that Bennett Sims’ debut novel is not your typical zombie story: “What we know about the undead so far is this: they return to the familiar. They’ll wander to nostalgically charged sites from their former lives…Its house, its office, the bikelanes circling the lake, the bar. ‘Haunts.'” Instead of exulting in cannibalism and skull-bashing, Sims has written an introspective, often meandering, meditation of a novel, focusing both on the minutiae of a zombie-infected world and the broad philosophical questions that such a world raises. The narrator’s musings invoke all the important themes: life, death, love, memory. Instead of shying away from the big questions—about what is just, what the definition of life should be, what our obligations are to the living and the dead—he places them front and center. And he does it while reanimated corpses roam the streets.

Whatever else one thinks about this book, it’s impossible not to marvel at the originality and ambition of its concept—a David Foster Wallace novel by way of Max Brooks, with a pinch of Nicholson Baker thrown in for good measure. The resemblance to the first is no surprise. Sims was a student of Wallace’s, and the book is dedicated to him. At times, in fact, A Questionable Shape begins to feel like an homage. The text is littered with footnotes that both augment and distract from the narrative, and brief moments have a way of stretching toward infinity in the mental time of the narrator. The story is so full of digressions and asides that the book sometimes feelsless like a novel than a theoretical treatise on zombie ontology, or “hauntology,” a term the narrator oh-so-cleverly coins.

If you strip away all these accoutrements, the story itself is fairly simple. A zombie outbreak has swept through parts of the country, though the action of the novel is limited to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a few surrounding areas. The narrator, Michael Vermaelen, is helping his best friend, Matt Mazoch, search for Mazoch’s father, who they believe to be one of the undead. They’ve given themselves one more week to complete the search, but as the week progresses, Vermaelen begins to suspect that Mazoch may not be able to call it off. Vermaelen’s girlfriend, Rachel, grows increasingly fearful about Mazoch’s intentions and demands that Vermaelen call off the search. These tensions give the book whatever narrative drive it has, which isn’t much.

Most of the book consists of Vermaelen’s ruminations, many of which revolve around the fascinating problems raised by the zombie outbreak. A former philosophy student, Vermaelen dives deep into the moral and ethical quandaries of his situation. These ruminations often arise from simple observations, which then spiral down a rabbit hole of analysis and allusion. For example, Vermaelen’s description of a zombie outbreak captured on video and posted to YouTube leads to a discussion of optical illusions, Necker cubes, and Wittgenstein’s thought experiment of trying “to see human beings as automata.” This entire digression occurs in a long footnote, and by the time we make it back to the body of the text, any sense of horror or existential dread has been lost.

Instead, what remains is the narrator’s impressive, if incongruous, erudition. His diction practically glistens with the wealth of his vocabulary. If zombies could be stopped by ten-dollar words, Vermaelen would be set. There is also Sims’ constant allusiveness, references to everything from Greek tragedy to Romantic poetry to video games, David Chalmers and Hans Holbein to the oxidation patterns of red delicious apples. Many of these tangents are interesting, but they were not enough to sustain my interest throughout the course of the novel (which is relatively short, at 218 pages). I certainly wasn’t expecting a thriller, but I had assumed that a novel involving zombies would at least occasionally quicken my pulse. But the undead are nearly invisible, always held safely at the margins, so the characters have plenty of time to wrestle with the troubling philosophical issues of a world populated by walking corpses. God forbid they ever wrestle with an actual zombie.

The one-week deadline for Mazoch’s search does lend the novel a scrim of urgency. But after the first two days have passed, it’s pretty clear that all the relevant action will be happening inside Vermaelen’s head. This is a puzzling choice, since most successful zombie narratives gain tension and urgency from the terrifying choices their characters are forced to make. But in A Questionable Shape, all dilemmas remain theoretical. The characters talk about them quite often—with each of the three main characters representing a distinct philosophical viewpoint—and Vermaelen ruminates on them almost constantly, but he’s never forced to confront them in any real way.

So A Questionable Shape is at once a zombie story and a philosophical exploration of the zombie phenomenon. But in trying to do both, Sims has accomplished neither, producing a novel without a strong narrative drive and a theoretical treatise without a unifying argument. The whole ends up seeming like less than the sum of its parts, though any number of those parts—particularly the moral quandary of how to deal with the infected, who retain the rights of citizens, if not the faculties—might have served as the basis for a novel all by itself. And the central conceit about the zombies—that they return to their old haunts as inevitably and thoughtlessly as homing pigeons—is a fascinating idea, one that would have benefited from being put in motion in the story. But as the book spirals ever deeper into the intangible and the theoretical, one begins to wonder whether any of it amounts to more than navel-gazing, a “what if” piece stretched to novel length on the excuse of a thin fictional plot.

For the true zombie devotee, the book’s musings, and its broad network of allusions, are bound to be compelling. And Sims is a wonderfully gifted writer—one of those novelists who, much like David Foster Wallace, wants to swallow the world and spit it out in a new form. But in Wallace’s work, big ideas arise from the hopes and fears of individual human beings—people that readers want to know and understand—which is why his great accomplishments, in both fiction and nonfiction, are essential reading. On the other hand, if you’re just looking for some pulpy summer fun, you can’t go wrong with Max Brooks.


Daniel Bergner | What Do Women Want?

Ecco, 2013

by Sally Franson

what-do-women-wantEgoism being the essayist’s ambrosia, I submit to you, as preface to this review, a brief personal anecdote that perhaps will illustrate my skin in the game (literal) regarding its subject matter: circa age six, circa 1989, I am riding my Schwinn with the polka-dot banana seat up and down the block, wearing my little flowered shorts with the matching lace tank top. I take my feet off the pedals for a moment, enjoying the breeze in my hair as I coast across the avenue, when a soft whump of sensation ricochets up my spine, beginning where my perineum meets the banana seat. To say the sensation is good is to omit a great mountain range of feeling in my hippocampus; without thinking, with instincts far outside my pre-prepubescent consciousness, I begin to wiggle my hips back and forth on the seat. The bike slows down. The sensation increases. I inch past the Marquardts’ split level in some mild state of ecstasy, knowing without fully knowing what I am doing, when I see my mother appear in our front yard, pruning shears in her hand. I freeze, grip the handlebars; my knuckles, involuntarily, turn white. My mother looks at me, a wire tripped across her face. What, she asks, in God’s name are you doing?

On the back flap of What Do Women Want?, an appropriately scarlet volume, the width of it, by the way, uncannily close to the diameter of the average vagina, you will find a photograph and biography of one Daniel Bergner, pea coated and smiling, his credentials almost preposterously pedigreed. Ahoy: a man, Brooklyned, white, striding forth to offer illumination on the dark rooms of female desire! Call me a feminist with her panties in a twist, but if I had to draw a line in the sand for Shit I’d Rather Not Have Mansplained to Me, I’m pretty sure that line would begin at my genitals. In fairness, this is a man who uses words like throb regularly and without, dare I say, even a flaccid thwack of irony, but still. To paraphrase that great women’s lib film, Superbad: has this guy ever even seen a vagina by itself? Let alone lived with one?

But hey. Maybe this line of thinking, so to speak, lands too far below the belt. Men study female sexuality all the time, after all; they write about it pretty much constantly, too. The problem here is that What Do Women Want?, structurally, has a quality akin to setting a teenage boy loose in an after-hours sex shop, only to tell him that his ride is coming in fifteen minutes. A verb comes to mind: to careen. Quickly, then, a truncated topical index within Bergner’s arsenal: Freud, Victorianism, vibrators, Viagra, monkeys, more monkeys, monogamy, laboratory masturbation: the list goes on, sometimes within a single paragraph. None of this information, exactly, is new: Naomi Wolf’s Vagina covered similar territory a few years back. What is new, however, is that our investigator is a man, at once breathless, privileged, eager, as men often are, to give us some valuable news. “Minds deny bodies,” Bergner proclaims, his authoritative take on the sociocultural constraints thrust upon women’s lust (pardon the verbiage; I claim infection), and this in the midst of an era of relative sexual inundation! Isn’t it messed up, he seems to say, naïvely, wonderingly, how women are neither allowed to express the intensity of their libidos nor their grief when their desire dissipates?

He’s right, of course. It is messed up. American women in particular, myself included, tend to view their bodies primarily from the outside: entities to be managed, whittled down, acted upon and not in. We have lost track of our own corporeal sensations, perhaps because they often present themselves in such diametric opposition to the self-perpetuating echo chamber of heteronormalcy. The most compelling research in this book, then, presented messily yet with some urgency, is a sentiment echoed by scientists across the board whom Bergner interrogates, from psychopharmacologists to biologists: an idea yet to be empirically proven, but which feels profound and essential. In short, women are not wired for monogamy any more than men are. The erotic, our fearless author muses, may run best on rawer fuel. Evolutionary psychologists who propagated the theory that females are naturally more sexually restrained are coming under fire by neuroscientists and primatologists, many of who are attempting to separate biological impulses from the entrenched inculcations of our culture’s primary religion. “We embraced the science that soothed us,” Bergner writes of hooey like Parental Investment Theory, “the science we wanted to hear.”

At the end of Bergner’s book, he offers this fable: an experiment with speed dating done by two psychologists from Northwestern and UT-Austin. The study recently revealed that, when women were the moving actors in the room, as opposed to the usual speed dating practice of just the men physically rotating, their measurable desire ratings were just as lustful and indiscriminate as the supposedly more promiscuous gender. All it took, in the end, was an invitation for the women to get up off their chairs. Think of the implications of this for too long, or, in this reviewer’s case, with a bottle of red wine too close at hand, and a deep melancholy may come knocking at the door. For it touches on a universal tragedy in contemporary female life: the way we’re still pushed, indiscriminately, into small and docile boxes; the way we’ve been indoctrinated, perpetually, in precisely how and what we should feel. But the greater tragedy, more personal, and our responsibility alone: that we have so bowed our heads and accepted these strictures; that we chose (for indeed, no one chose for us) to abandon our own instincts. Yet once in a while a bell goes off in our heads: in these brief moments of wakefulness, a chance to reevaluate. What Do Women Want?, then, despite its male authorship and chaotic narrative, provides one powerful opportunity to sound the alarm.


Carl Phillips | Silverchest

FSG, 2013

by Barrett Warner

silverchestCarl Phillips writes exactly like that quiet insomniac, unable to rest, but not wanting to keep others awake either. In his new collection Silverchest, he’s moving square in his own middle, his center of gravity rendering weightless the world pushing against him. In “And Other Animals,” the sweet spot is a rapid: “Roughly the river, running swift, and silver. / The usual more sluggish business of erosion / to either side of it—this life, / for that one.”

Phillips is a smart one, a Latin scholar who’s not sheepish about slipping a little Virgil or Hadrian into a wine glass. He’s learned a lot, but now he’s older (this is his fourteenth volume), and memory often dilutes to nostalgia and desire to neediness. It’s harder and harder to be curious about the world, and when Phillips senses he’s becoming jaded it rouses the tiger. In “Snow Globe” he cautions, “Stay as blind as / ever to the particular form of failure that is / still nostalgia.”

This is new territory. Phillips is the stranger coming to a town that doesn’t exist, in spite of receiving his mail there for many years. He coaches us in “So the Mind like a Gate Swings Open” to “Look a little lost, maybe, but unsurprised.” And, in the opening poem “Just the Wind for a Sound, Softly,” he begins “There’s a weed whose name I’ve meant all summer / to find out…” To a man who knows through feeling, figuring something out is an act of love. The poem ends: “It is hard to see anyone who has become / like your own body to you. And now I can’t forget.” Phillips is both as restless and tenacious as a weed, but oh, what a gorgeous blue blossom the chicory has.

British poet Kevin Higgins says that poetry is the act of convincing the listener, or reader, of something which is irrational. The reward is empathy for that which we couldn’t intellectually comprehend previously. Phillips takes this view to an extreme in “Surrounded As We Are, Unlit, Unshadowed” where he embraces what he can’t understand:

close to
that below-zero where we almost
forget ourselves, rise at last unastonished
at the wreckery of it, what the wreckage
somedays can seem all along to have
been mostly, making you wonder what fear
if for, what prayer is, if not the first word
and not the last one either, if it changes
nothing of what you are still, black stars,
scars, crossing a field that you’ve
crossed before, holding on, tight, though
careful, for you must be careful, so easily
torn is the veil diminishment comes
down to as it lifts and falls, see it falling,
now it lifts again, why do we love, at all?

What I treasured most about this book with its long and sparse titles—it’s use of step-down enjambment to create more pause than commas alone—is the way Phillips dispenses with context, although the reader doesn’t feel lost without any props. The poems become one long set up after he offers a few words to get us underway: “Squalor of leaves. November. A lone / hornets’ nest. Paper wasps. Place where / everything that happens is as who says it will.”  My favorite poems in this vein were “Black Swan on Water, in a Little Rain,” “Distraction,” “Darkness Is as Darkness Does”—one of the best poems about poetry I’ve read—“Interior: All the Leaves Shake off Their Light,” “Border Song,” and “As for That Piece of Sundown You’ve Been Wanting.”

My bet is that anyone who reads this book will find at least one life-changing poem. And then, as with all the other life-changing poems, will want to re-post it on Facebook and spend the day nodding smugly as friends wear out the “like” button.


Charlie LeDuff | Detroit: An American Autopsy

Penguin, 2013

by B. J. Fischer

leduffWhen you mix with the pro-Detroit set, it doesn’t take long before you hear the term “ruin porn.” The term is used to describe the product of a visiting journalist from the coast who lands at the airport and spends about three hours driving around and shooting the ruins of Detroit—an easy assignment if ever there was one—and then flies back to New York and places the video on television.

The work shares every element with porn. It is superficial, misleading, gratuitous, visually gratifying, and leaves everyone worse off.

This is the stage Charley LeDuff walks onto with his book, Detroit: An American Autopsy. LeDuff is a native Detroiter and a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist with a bad boy reputation who returned home after resigning from the New York Times. Detroit: An American Autopsy is gritty and uncomfortable and embarrassing, but it is written with a purpose beyond shock and titillation. It is not porn.

To be fair, even if LeDuff is not a pornographer, he is probably a little too eager to star in his own story, a common affliction among crusading journalists. As a prose stylist, LeDuff can be classified as belonging to the late Damon Runyon School, with an occasional nod to Mickey Spillane. Here’s some hard-boiled prose:

“How many girls like this die in the city?” I said, looking up at Carlisle.
“Too many,” he said, through a cloud of smoke.

Here is a piece of prose that would probably be better coming from the mouth of Rod Serling:

As for me, I didn’t know who I was fighting anymore.  Probably myself,
and I was killing him.

Most importantly, LeDuff—along with nearly every other narrative journalist alive—has been accused of being a little soft with the facts. The best example relates to the book’s signature vignette: the discovery of a dead body under three feet of ice in an abandoned Detroit warehouse.

LeDuff says that the body was found by a group of “urban explorers” who were playing hockey in the ice at the bottom of that warehouse. In his story, they continued their game even after they found the body. The author further claims that he tried to get the police to respond, only to have them be unable to find the building on the first try and ignore him on the second—both details designed to support the callous indifference of a city desensitized.

Subsequent media stories in the Detroit Free Press contradict LeDuff’s portrayal of the police force as unresponsive and bumbling. The Free Press provides evidence that LeDuff was in no hurry to call 911 himself, preferring to work the story first. Finally, Metro Times ran down one of the hockey players who says that he was the only explorer who saw the body. The other hockey players were not aware of what had been found as they continued their game, and the portrayal of the entire group as uncaring is not accurate.

The details have to matter. LeDuff is lauded for his “novelist’s eye” and includes what he does for a reason. Presumptive truth is an inseparable part of the power of the narrative.

Here’s the point. There’s another anecdote in the book where LeDuff says that Detroit City Council President (and later federal inmate 43693-039) Monica Conyers met him in a bar and reached across the table and fondled his testicles. No witnesses, no corroboration. Do you believe him?

There’s still plenty in the book that is documented to support LeDuff’s overall thesis that Detroit—and America—are being brought down by a “national sickness” of greed and incompetence.

The scandals of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, for example, are well known around the country. Less well know is the story of Walt Harris, a pastor and firefighter who kept serving the people of a city whose government provided him boots with holes. He ran into an abandoned house fire in case there were drug addicts and squatters inside. The roof collapsed and he suffocated when his homing alarm failed to function and prevented his rescue.

Less well known is the story of Mike Nevin, another Detroit firefighter. Firehouses in Detroit were in deplorable repair, with broken toilets and screen doors, for example, and it was a sadly common practice for members of the fire department to scavenge vacant houses for replacements. Mike Nevin was recorded on video while “pillaging” the City and fired.

Even less well known are the stories related to LeDuff’s own family. His streetwalking sister died jumping from the car of a crazed john. His niece died of a heroin overdose in her grandfather’s house. His brother, a high school dropout, once held a good job peddling subprime mortgages for Quicken. When that went away, he was forced to work for $8.20 an hour sorting screws made in China, at least partly to obscure their provenance.

The stories in this book are so grotesque and yet so common that it will be deceptively easy for readers to think it is taking place in a foreign land. However, to those who are tempted to sit in their home in Chicago or Phoenix or Dallas and shake their head reproachfully, LeDuff delivers the book’s grand proposition:

I believe that Detroit is America’s city. It was the vanguard of our way
up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down.

Here, too, LeDuff relies on personal experience. He has lived all over the country, and he has this observation:

Detroit can no longer be ignored, because what happened here is
happening out there. Neighborhoods from Phoenix to Los Angeles to
Miami are blighted with empty houses and with idle hands. Americans
are swimming in debt, and the prospects of servicing the debt grow
slimmer by the day as good-paying jobs continue to evaporate or relocate
to foreign lands.

For all the posturing and dramatics, you can’t deny LeDuff his anger. If you don’t like his focus on negativity or corruption or violence, or you think his tone is wrong, keep this in mind: he thinks we are better than this.

He’s right about that. If we’ve lost the ability to be outraged about the gap between what we see and what we know we could be, that’s a sclerosis that we have to start talking about.


L. Annette Binder | Rise

Sarabande Books, 2012

by Meredith Newell

rise_coverVladimir Nabokov said, “A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.”  L. Annette Binder exemplifies these qualities in her debut collection of short stories, Rise, which is rooted in reality, yet winged and lyrical. Rise shines by pushing against the boundaries of plausibility and enmeshing the grotesque with the natural world.

The first story in the collection, and Pushcart Prize winner, “Nephilim,” is told from the perspective of a giantess, whose bond with a young neighbor boy warms and wrenches the heart. “All beautiful things go away. Everyone knows this is true.” Here, Binder parallels the impermanence of a flower with that of life. While this story is bittersweet, Binder elevates it past the heartache of a deformed woman in a dysfunctional world, to a study of humanity though the exploration of unconventional relationships. Binder proposes that we are more than neighbors and lovers to each other. Rather, we are mirrors.

Parental issues, excess, and fear of mortality are motifs that thread the stories together. Yet, while these themes are ever-present, Binder creates moments that stir understanding and unearth a sense of euphoria. In ”Galatea,” a woman whose daughter is missing, masks her brokenness with compulsive plastic surgery. She visits the empty grave noting, “People don’t go to the cemetery to visit the dead. They go to visit their memories.” Though it’s only a scrap, there is a stunning sense of resolution and understanding in this.

Binder’s characters are multidimensional—not simply compulsive or imperfect. In “Nod,” Fish resorts to insomnia and hoarding survivalist gear to combat his fear of dying like his father. In the midst of his crippling insecurity and isolation, he looks at his wife and sees perfection in her flaws: “all the things she hated were the ones he loved the best.”

With apparent ease, Binder gets to the bones of fear and insecurity. While she offers hope through humor and beauty, she writes with clarity about the pain of life’s trials. Leonard in “Tremble,” suppresses his loneliness by clandestinely falling in love with female co-workers who resemble his deceased mother. He finally finds peace in an unusual place, with a prostitute who lets him braid her hair, “and for a little while he wasn’t fat; no, he was slender the way he used to be, and his hands stopped all their shaking.”

In the title story, “Rise,” Ethan is consumed by guilt after accidentally hitting and killing a young girl with his car. Binder beautifully juxtaposes his inner and outer life, weaving together his lurid days and the recurring dreams he escapes to at night. In the end, Ethan has a choice to make: will he choose to live with the pain of his mistake or allow himself to die from the agony of it? This theme underscores the stories throughout and poses the same question to the reader: Will we bow to our burdens, or will we rise above?


Eric Pankey | Trace

Milkweed Editions, 2013

by David Tomaloff

pankeyMama wipe the blood from my face
I’m sick and tired of the war
Got a lone black feelin’, and it’s hard to trace
Feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

—Bob Dylan, from “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
(Before the Flood version, 1974)

We bundled wheat together, called it our God.
The roof we lived beneath,
merely a translation
Of the word roof, kept out no rain.

—Eric Pankey, from “Models of Paradise”


Eric Pankey’s ninth collection of poems, Trace, is a somber affair whose tone radiates and oscillates between far points of fear, defiance, faith, and concession. There is joy, or perhaps more accurately, traces of joy that mostly shine through in threads of implication—the deeper understanding and connection with the natural world that comes only with full immersion. One could imagine a time in the narrator’s life when a collection such as Trace might have been built more from Leaves of Grass than The Hollow Men, more Henry David Thoreau than Dante or Baudelaire.

For I’d rather be thy child
And pupil, in the forest wild,
Than be the king of men elsewhere,
And most sovereign slave of care;
To have one moment of thy dawn,
Than share the city’s year forlorn.

—Henry David Thoreau, from “Nature”

Still hunkered on the mountain ridge,
The moon: a saline ghost, a mouth

Opened around a hollow syllable.
When we move toward the sacrifice,

God lifts as a swarm—a body of flies—
As sated as God ever is.

—Eric Pankey, from “The Sacrifice”

And that battle, as one might sense, is exactly the sort of battle being waged—or rather, at times, waged against. I am reminded very much of Bob Dylan singing Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door as I lift Pankey’s words from the page. The two share a world-weary view that speaks often and welcomingly of the end, but in a way that suggests sadness in leaving their respective worlds behind. I use the word respective here to be adequately careful in assuming what those worlds might signify, as a world ending is not always an actual world or a life in the traditional sense. There are times when a world left behind serves metaphorically as a path no longer followed, and perhaps for the best, where the difference between them is a thin line cautiously walked (Johnny Cash reference, anyone?).

I had a vision of the hereafter.
No flame or gnashing.
Just a table set
With bread and milk, a large knife, cups for all

—from “Models of Paradise”

I once drank with a vengeance.
Now I drink in surrender.
The thaw cannot keep me from wintering in.

I prepare for death when I should prepare
For tomorrow and the day after
and the day after that.

—from “Sober Then Drunk Again”

Even with its (what some might consider) occasional melodrama and the flame-and-ash imagery of its traditional Christian references, Trace speaks in a wholly unique and sonorously poetic voice—one that speaks to all who approach their worlds with eyes open. One that sticks to the roof of the mouth and reminds us to remember we are alive and instilled with the ability to choose so long as the former is true. And if that last sentence reeks of overly abstract optimism, it does so only by, and in contrast to, the knowledge of another—and much darker—choice.