Make Believe as Metaphor

This post was originally published on June 1, 2011. It’s being re-shared as part of LPR’s 10th Anniversary.

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caught flak–and a great deal of attention–for running a disaster-preparedness campaign for the Zombie Apocalypse. If you are ready for Zombies, the CDC suggests, you are ready for anything. Tips for an ordinary disaster-preparedness kit follow. The CDC understands that zombies aren’t a real threat. What appears to be make believe is really metaphor. In this equation Zombies = life-altering disaster.

Writer, illustrator and storyteller Vonnie Winslow Crist understands the relationship between make believe and metaphor. Crist, who recently published a book of fairy tales, poems and sketches, The Greener Forest, has a featured essay, “Fairies, Magic and Monsters,” in LPR’s Make Believe issue, scheduled to launch June 18. The essay looks at current and classic fantasy books and movies such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Crist traces their popularity back to somber messages safely sent through stories shared by the cooking fire.

Many have complained that the Harry Potter series grew progressively dark with each book. Considering that Rowling explored a subculture living in a state of dictator-enforced paranoia, the darkness makes sense. Lord Voldemort’s tactics are as familiar as the front page, which daily tells us about the cruelties of depots clinging to power. In her essay, Crist points out, “This is fantastical literature’s greatest gift. Through make believe places, races, characters, and creatures, the authors of these tales use metaphor to help us examine the controversial issues of our world.”

Crist is a master of metaphor. In The Greener Forest, her modern fairy tales stand out. These stories use traditional fairy tale tropes, artfully layered with modern concerns. In “Shoreside,” a vacation at the beach forces a wife and mother to reconsider the family life she has chosen. Hiromi watches her husband and children swim in the ocean but avoids the water herself. She is a ningyo (a mermaid of Japanese folklore) and fears that the pull of the water and the adventurous life it represents will break her family ties. When a child nearly drowns in the ocean, Hiromi must test those ties.

“Tootsie’s Swamp Tours & Amusement Park” is set, with an oddball sense of just-the-right detail, at a rundown Southern destination beset by Spriggans. As Jess walks through the park with her uncle and husband, she realizes only she can see the ugly fairy creatures threatening her. Jess, who has recently lost a pregnancy, comes to believe the Spriggans caused her miscarriage. Her depression lifts as she takes control of her situation.

A handful of original fairy tales set in “once upon a time” showcase Crist’s love of the genre. “Blood of the Swan” is a particularly beautiful quest story about a young man who must slay the swan maiden he loves in order to save his village.

The stories in The Greener Forest can be dark. Even tales with a love theme at their center, such as “The Return of Gunnar Kettilson,” would never be optioned by Disney for a feature film. Gunnar Kettilson is, after all, a zombie. Unlike modern zombies, though, Gunnar has a thirst for revenge, not brains, and he still has enough heart left to protect the woman he loves. As Crist says in her LPR essay, “Fairies, magic, and even monsters will continue to be threads running through the human tapestry because they offer us hope and bring order to chaos.”

Vonnie Winslow Crist writes Harford’s Heart magazine’s “Writer’s Block” column, does illustrations for the Vegetarian Journal, co-edits The Gunpowder Review, contributes to Faerie Magazine and publishes the blog Whimsical Words. She has taught creative writing at Harford Community College and for the Maryland State Arts Council Arts in Education Program and regularly leads a writing workshop at Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Balticon

Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Tales of the Talisman, Macabre Magazine (England), First Word Bulletin (Spain) and Great Writers Great Stories: Writers from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as Loch Raven Review, Champagne Shivers and EMG-Zine. She is author-illustrator of Leprechaun Cake & Other Tales (children’s book), Essential Fables (poetry) and River of Stars (poetry) and co-editor of Lower Than the Angels: Science Fact, Science Fiction & Fantasy and Through a Glass Darkly: An Anthology of Mystery, Gothic Horror & Dark Fantasy.

She has received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award and placed first in the 2007 Maryland National League of American Pen Women poetry contest.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this publication, please check out LPR’s Issue 10: Make Believe https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/

Book Review: Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps

book2-07-480x480My experience of my heritage is curiously American, curiously Jewish. My paternal great grandparents immigrated from Ukraine. I don’t know when, or if my grandfather was born yet, or if my paternal grandmother’s parents were also from Ukraine, or what my family’s name was before their passage through Ellis Island. In fact, I don’t think anyone knows what my family’s name was before. More than Jewish — an identity which my grandfather kept private and my father kept hardly at all by the time I was born — I saw them as big men in suits talking big business and 1950s New York zeitgeist, which is to say, I saw them as American.

But my father also loved to talk about and cook “Jewish peasant food,” reminiscing at holidays about his celebrations as a child of a big orthodox Jewish family, a big Baltimore Jewish community. But I had to ask my father to enroll me in Hebrew school when I was eleven so that I could be bar mitzvahed. I had picked up on this significant religious and cultural tradition from an American television show, “Hey Arnold!” It was also the age at which I first found the word “kike” and the age I can first remember my friends making anti-Semitic jokes. I don’t know if they learned their prejudice from a television show.

“Jews have been targets of genocide throughout history, but the Jews who were able to escape were often upper class and better able to assimilate,” Aaron Samuels said to me over the phone. I called him to discuss the sociopolitical aspects of his book, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps. “We see this in Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Russia, and so on.  Assimilation was a survival tactic, but not all Jews had access to it. Today Jews of color represent a counter-narrative to that assimilation.  But we need to remember that Jews have always been a multiracial group, since the beginning of our people.”

What’s most exciting to me about Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps is the strength of its counter narrative. It documents in beautiful and powerful verse Samuels’ navigation of his socially constructed identity and his personal experience of self as they mutually evolve from his childhood into his future. He writes his Judaism, his blackness, his masculinity, his sexuality.

Samuels’ book is in the Jewish tradition of midrash, the active construction of communal identity through retelling and reinterpreting stories. “What Really Happened on Mt. Moriah” is a harrowing retelling of the binding of Isaac that reroutes the Jewish abolition of human sacrifice through a collection of servants rather than a patriarchal sage. Samuels recasts the ten plagues and expands the stories of Moses’ exile from Egypt. But what feels most crucial is how he applies this technique of retelling to his own experience.

Sometimes it’s within one poem, like the winding repetition over locks of hair in “Which Keeps Me” or embedded in the structure of the poem as in “Covered In Grass”, which borrows from Tyehimba Jess’ contrapuntal technique. Some figures and events surface in several poems. Samuels’ repeated examinations of his brother, Jacob, and adoption of his voice in some poems fashions a powerful lens on family, culture, and the making of race. In “Tashlikh”, Samuels mythologizes his brother:

I imagined him a fourteen year old boy with cornrows. I imagined him skinny and fragile and guilty, and willing to jump into any sludge puddle to avoid his brother’s disappointement.

But we all saw a squid titan, a Moses of sorts, presenting the ram’s horn to his people like commandments, standing in a puddle of bread crumbs, happy to have something to blow about.

Reading poems with this much power loaded in the language and so much emotional candor makes me feel powerful myself. Aaron’s ability to take traditions like the dozens and midrash and unify them in one poetic language illustrates modernity in Judaism and historicity of black peoples, subverting common oppressive narratives. For many years I have been unsure in how to navigate my own Jewish identity, which has felt swallowed up by assimilation. Aaron’s defiance in the face of literary biases that devalue black expression, in the face of personal struggle between communities with which he identifies, in the face of a society bent on dehumanizing him and using him to dehumanize others, and his courage in closely studying himself and the world around him, empowers him and empowers me.

Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps by Aaron Levy Samuels is published by Write Bloody Publishing and can be purchased through their webstore.

Book Review: Meg Eden’s A Week With Beijing

10703867_366566943505699_4637561000111228413_oI’ve never been to Beijing, so Meg Eden’s invitation to take a trip there via poetry was exciting. My exposure to Eden’s poetry, particularly her collection The Girl Who Came Back (which draws heavily on the Enchanted Forest, a dilapidated abandoned amusement park in Ellicott City) made me feel confident that even in a foreign land she would guide me with an expert eye to the private, hidden, and silent features that define the places I’ve known.

Eden’s Beijing is a woman expending outrageous effort and demanding complete control for the sake of her appearance, heightening the stakes of Eden’s attempt to take a candid look at her. But Eden does not shy away, leading the collection with “A List Of Banned Chinese Social Media Search Terms,” which additionally serves a short list of themes that seem constantly just behind the lips of Eden’s Beijing as she says, “there are some things that shouldn’t be talked about.” She proceeds to lead us on a tour of Beijing’s bedroom where bras and other sundries litter the floor.

megeden_headshot

Meg Eden

However, the strongest moments of the collection aren’t Beijing’s moments of vulnerability, but the speaker’s own. Through the collection, Eden’s speaker moves from a position of enthusiasm and excitement to disappointment to distance and detachment. The language that accompanies these transformations is insightful and inventive:

If we are name-stealers,
then call me Wendy Zhang.
Let me be twenty poets.
Let me run whole-heartedly
through pavement-seas
with this dangerous freedom.

From the picture Eden paints, I would be disappointed too. Beijing, both personified and as a setting is dirty, mean, judgmental, and inconsiderate. Inhabitants of the city are hustling bootlegged CDs, bootlegged restaurants, and bootlegged theme parks (the phrase “copyright infringement” appears twice in three pages). But these are many of the same pictures painted by American media, which reminds me that in reading this collection I haven’t really left the US at all. At times Eden constructs scenes that feel uncomfortably close to stereotype. I have no point of comparison to know whether Eden’s representation is accurate, and if it is then more power to her for having courage to broach the uncomfortable (which is explicitly mentioned in the dedication), but I felt like some poems weren’t giving me the whole story, that there was a side I wasn’t seeing. For example, despite the mentions of “infringement” there was no discussion of shanzhai.

Florentijn Hofman's contemporary pop-art icon Rubber Duck was copied several times over by shanzhai artists (Photo: http://hyperallergic.com/75107/how-pop-art-got-ripped-off/).

Florentijn Hofman’s contemporary pop-art icon Rubber Duck was copied several times over by shanzhai artists (Photo: http://hyperallergic.com/75107/how-pop-art-got-ripped-off/).

One pair of poems particularly felt like a missed opportunity in this respect: “A List Beijing Composed Of Her Phobias” and “A List Of Beijing’s Discovered Phobias”. The former is totally blank. The latter includes “the young and their lack of fear,” “foreigners and their voices,” “the uncovering of infringed dolls,” and “the compounding of questions.” Both poems are exciting conceptually in allowing space for Beijing to speak both on and off the record, and while they are sharply executed in their current form, both poems seem dominated by the common American conception of China. The first poem a Chinese wall, the second implicating the communist goverment’s efforts to expunge the relative social and economic freedom of the West. But China is more than its government, even if Beijing is the seat of power, and I’m left wondering what the “the young…the derelict…the disabled” of Beijing are afraid of. We never hear from them except as objects and images.

In spite of this limitation, Eden’s eyes would give the government good reason to be afraid. Another pair of powerful poems will likely double as beautifully worded journalism for many readers, myself included. Eden works imagined quotes and quotes reimagined into twin reports on the harrowing details and broader socioeconomic context of a factory fire. And in these twin poems, Eden’s careful wording deftly lays out the facts of the tragedy, in this case creating space for the reader to navigate the confused and complicated structure of Chinese society.

Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include  “Your Son” (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), “Rotary Phones and Facebook” (Dancing Girl Press) and “The Girl Who Came Back” (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. 

5 Questions for Jen Michalski, Author of The Tide King

Michalskiblue

Baltimore-based author and editor, Jen Michalski.

When author Jen Michalski was featured in the Baltimore Sun this summer, the headline called 2013 “a prolific year” for her. That phrase is appropriate. Michalski, a mainstay of the tight-knit Baltimore literary scene, will have three books published between January 2013 and April 2014.

But for a writer as hard-working as Michalski, “prolific year” is also misleading. In addition to working on her own writing, Michalski edits the Baltimore-based journal jmww and frequents local literary readings.

Michalski and I spoke about her not-so-sudden success last weekend, and we followed with an email exchange. I had recently read The Tide King, her stand-alone novel (Black Lawrence Press).

thetideking_cover_lorestrials_4Laura Shovan (LS): With three books published within an eighteen-month period and a feature in the Baltimore Sun, one might be tempted to say, “Jen Michalski is an overnight success.” Those of us involved in the local scene know that you are a longtime literary community activist. Over the years, how have you balanced supporting other writers—through projects like jmww, the 510 Reading Series, and the City Sages anthology—with staying committed to your own writing?

Jen Michalski (JM): I don’t know, really! It all works out, somehow. A caveat—I like to keep busy. I have this manic mental itch, and there are so many other things I would attempt to scratch it with if I weren’t so involved in the writing community: I want to learn to play the bass and trumpet, attend the symphonies and opera, surf, and knit. I often wish the days were twice as long, or that there were two of me!

That said, ironically, my projects don’t leave a lot of time for writing. Fortunately, I do a lot of my work internally, in dreams and also subconsciously; and by the time I write it out, I’ve worked it over and over in my head and it’s pretty much the way it will be on the page. Writing also just comes when it’s ready, not when I try to force it, so I don’t feel pressured to set aside an hour a day and wait for something to happen. Finally, it helps that I’m a self-employed medical editor, which means my schedule is pretty flexible for when the writing does erupt.

Ultimately, though, being involved in the community is inspiring to me as a writer. All writing is a dialogue between writer and reader, and when I’ve attended a great reading or accepted a great piece for jmww or just talked with another writer about his or her inspiration or process or even kids, I am compelled to respond in my own way somehow, whether right away or subconsciously, a few months later. I feel like these outside projects fertilize the garden, in a way.

Salon Series, New York

Jen Michalski

LS: We talked about the way different threads of research came together as you were constructing The Tide King: the last “witch” burned in Poland, your family’s immigration story, a National Geographic article about the sinking of the Bismarck, both your grandfathers’ WWII experiences. All of these, except for the Bismarck, are key themes or events in The Tide King. Would you describe your research process? How do you know when something you uncover is going to work for the book?

JM: Research excites me because I never know what I’m going to turn up. In fact, I no longer lock myself in a plotline early on when I’m writing or researching the novel. When I’m researching I’m like a boat in the ocean; I can glide along in lot of different directions and trajectories before seeing land again. And then I might wind up landing in Cape Town when I thought I was going to Madrid!

Even though my research is driven by things about which I’m passionate, I just try to remain open to what I find. If I really wanted to set the novel in Alaska but when I’m Googling I read about a fishing village in Nova Scotia that really excites me, I go with it. In that sense, I know something is going to work when I become excited about it, when the story suddenly opens up and expands. Sometimes, though, the research just gets cut, and I’m okay with that. I wrote about 600 pages of The Tide King and only wound up using 300. I don’t feel they were wasted pages—they were just sort of the outtakes you wind up seeing on movie DVDs. (In fact, a lot of the deleted scenes did wind up being stand-alone stories that were published.)

I also try to stay loose through the various revisions of the novel. The first draft is so different from the second, the second from the third, and so on. Although the characters and the basic plot may stay the same, all the scenes, the setups, can have changed from the first to third draft. It used to be something that frustrated me, because you want to keep the energy of the first draft or idea without watering it down through the revisions. But often the revisions take it to a better place. Now, I try and concentrate on just digging through the research, the draft writing, knowing that I’m going to hit pay-dirt down the road—I trust my intuition will guide me to where I need to be. I am a writer entirely in the moment of writing. I never think about when I should be finished with a particular novel, whether I’ve spent too much time on it, and I also never wish for a novel to end. I try to have so much fun writing it that I’m disappointed when I’ve done all I can and it’s finally finished, that I have to find something else to do.

LS: Early in the novel, Barbara, an herbalist living in rural Poland in the 1800s, discovers a patch of burnette saxifrage that’s been struck by lightning. The herb, she realizes, has extraordinary healing powers. You said that this story, while not scientific, is drawn from both history and folklore. How did this element of magical realism become the novel’s inciting incident, the thing that draws these characters—who span over 100 years—together?

JM: The decision to use the herb, for me, was definitely, the “aha” moment. When I first started writing about Stanley and Calvin in the European theater of World War II (which was inspired indirectly by a story I’d read about the battleship Bismarck in National Geographic), I didn’t know what was going to happen with them. In the back of my mind I knew I didn’t want to write a war novel, even as I wanted to honor my grandfathers, who both served and never talked about it. But I kept writing, figuring that what to do next would occur to me by the time I got to that crossroads. And it did—one day, I was looking through some story files on my computer and found fifty pages of this other novel I had started many years before and forgotten. It featured the enchanted burnette saxifrage. I wondered, “What if one of the soldiers, Stanley or Calvin, gives it to the other?” Burnette saxifrage became the lynchpin—it could tie centuries of family and people together by the nature of its “curse.” It also provided a conceit, the curse of immortality and how humans deal with loneliness and time passing. But I was many months into research and writing before I realized the true story of The Tide King—and it turned out I’d been working on it for years without even realizing it.

LS: The friendship of WWII buddies Stanley and Calvin is central to The Tide King. However, the female characters shape the trajectory of Stanley’s and Calvin’s lives. How did you come up with Stanley’s love interest, little person and country music star Cindy? You said that Cindy’s daughter, Heidi, drives the second half of the novel. Can you explain what you meant?

JM: I don’t really know why I made Cindy a little person. I know I wanted to include country music because I was reading a lot about 1940s and 1950s country music, Patsy Cline and the Browns and Hank Williams Sr. So I knew Cindy would be a country music star. I always am drawn to the different, the “other.” I’ve written before about people with disabilities because I’m interested in their perspectives, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to include this twist in Cindy’s character.

Also, in a way,  although I didn’t realize it at the time, she becomes kind of a foil for Ela, who is also a little person in that she’s a two-hundred-year-old woman trapped in the body of a nine-year-old girl. Ela wants to die but she can’t, and Cindy wants to live on forever, immortalized as a country music star.

But Cindy and Kate (Calvin’s first love) drive the story. Calvin and Stanley never get over Kate and Cindy, and they are both driven through life by them in different ways. For one, it is a helpful, positive coping, and for the other, it’s not. I think it’s a very human condition, our “muses,” and the thin line between the destructive and redemptive nature of them.

Heidi’s story, even as it comprises the last third of the novel, is kind of a surprise to the reader, I think, and it was intentional on my part. For Ela and Calvin and Stanley and everyone else who comes in contact with the burnette saxifrage over the course of two hundred years, their information is very incomplete. They ingested the herb and did not know it, it wasn’t forced upon them, or they’re not aware of the breadth of its repercussions. Heidi is a character who is given full knowledge of the herb, knows what it can do, has seen how it affects those who take it. And, at the novel’s end, she must make a choice about the herb, and she is the only one, to that point, with the agency to decide whether or not she should take it, what should be done with it. I wanted to explore that freedom to decide one’s fate, through Heidi. To that point, the herb, or the search for the herb, for answers, had been the driving force.

LS: The one question you said most people ask about The Tide King is: Will there be a sequel? Explain why your answer is no.

JM: I think it’s good to leave the reader with questions. Life isn’t tied up in a bow, and I don’t think stories should be, either. There is no happy ever after—life just ends, and there’s nothing we really have to drive ourselves through it except our hopes—our hopes to be happy, to fall in love, to be successful. Which, on the face of it, are all human constructs, not real. And that’s what the characters in The Tide King have at the end—their hopes, however slim and unrealistic. There’s nothing that Calvin or Ela or Heidi could do in a sequel that would change the course of humanity, of the human condition. It’s sort of an old story, the follies and hopes of humankind, that doesn’t need a sequel. I thought that was the most fitting, realistic ending of all.

Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel THE TIDE KING (Black Lawrence Press) was voted “Best Fiction” by the Baltimore City Paper. She is the author of two collections of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (So New, 2007) and FROM HERE (Aqueous Books, 2014) and a collection of novellas, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww and hosts the monthly reading series the 510 Readings in Baltimore.

For more about The Tide King, see the Baltimore Sun’s review. Also consider reading up on Jen’s previous book, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW, reviewed by LPR earlier this year. Jen’s book FROM HERE is due to be published by Aqueous Books in April 2014.

Book Review: Kathleen Hellen’s Umberto’s Night

Umberto's Night

Kathleen Hellen’s award-winning poetry book

Kathleen Hellen’s Umberto’s Night won the 2012 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize. Its black cover, with an apocalyptic image of a city under an atomic fireball, hints at much of the content, made explicit by an epigraph from Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality: “as if along a river, you go by an invaded city…the city burns like a match…everything collapses in flames…”

The flames—sometimes literal, sometimes figurative—describe the pain carried by the speakers and characters observed in these finely crafted poems. There are drug addicts, ex-cons, murder victims, Vietnam veterans, blue-collar workers, slapped children, all vividly detailed in compact phrases. Their stories are stories of violence, whether on city streets, in battlegrounds or echoed ironically on a football field.

Hellen delivers her vivid and sometimes horrific images with exquisite beauty in poems that are meant to be read aloud. Listen to the half-rhyme and guttural consonants in these lines from “Reruns of Lassie”:

No chance of Timmy asking: “What is it, Lassie?
Who needs help?” No dog at all. Or gone.
Devoured by wolves. The dogs with bigger teeth.

The book is divided into five sections. The poems in Part 1 are told in a variety of voices—a teacher, a lover, a woman under arrest. They portray Baltimore as “a town too old for beginnings,” a city that swallows up A-students into unrelenting violence. In “Nine Circles,” a little boy experiences gunfire as a

ringing in his ears

that left a hole
in her thigh
the size
of a button.

In “Eight,” the speaker asks “who got shot in Druid Park? / whose throat was cut?”

Part 2 seems to follow the arc of a relationship that ends, as too many relationships do, in domestic violence. Here are scenes in a courtroom with a blasé judge who “has heard it all,” a victim who can feel her attacker “here in the bones of my throat” and poems filled with images of menacing hands, scars and cuts.

Yet the final poem in this section, “Palpable,” has two lovers in front of a late-night bakery, writing “love / backward on the glass” as they admire a display of glazed fruit tarts and watch the bakers with pans of freshly baked sweet rolls. Are these the same people who, earlier in this section, met on the Internet and then in person? If so, is this a flashback? Or simply a warning that any relationship might end badly, and that whether it will—or won’t—may be foreshadowed by “a drunkard’s quilt”?

Part 3 contrasts the foreignness of war with the domestic, day-to-day coping on the home front. Both soldiers and those left behind search, mostly unsuccessfully, for love. Nightmare images occur throughout this section: a football game morphs into a real battlefield, a year “shell shocked,” Vietnam slipping into innumerable conflicts in the Middle East. People and memories seem to become “[l]iving holographs”:

The night inside a night until
attention must be tipped
to darkness in its layers.

The final poem in this section leaves us in the “blackest Appalachians,” leading us right into Part 4’s mining and steel mill towns along the polluted Monongahela River. The night is lit by “a Frankenstein” of coke furnaces. The air smells sulfuric. Factories close, workers are laid off, their children go hungry. In the poem “A Pillar of Fire by Night,” Hellen gives us mattresses “in exodus,” offices “tight-lipped in their failures,” a way of life that was “there, then it wasn’t.”

Kathleen Hellen

Kathleen Hellen

Part 5 moves between disasters of varying scale, from those affecting millions, such as Hurricane Irene, to a car accident, from which the speaker escapes in the nick of time. Dandelions “implode” as they are mowed down; people, like comets, “burn out long before the accident of touch.” We lose those we love, see their ghosts in puddles or in dust. Through it all, these poems argue, hope persists, sometimes shaped like a daffodil, sometimes the human heart.

In addition to Umberto’s Night, Hellen has published The Girl Who Loved Mothra. Her poems have appeared in a range of journals and been featured on WYPR’s The Signal. In addition to the Feldman prize, she has received awards from H.O.W. JournalWashington Square Review, Thomas Merton Institute and  Appalachian Writers Association. Her work has been supported by grants from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and Maryland State Arts Council.

Note: Pat Valdata will appear this Saturday at our CityLit Festival reading.

Book Review: Elisavietta Ritchie’s Feathers or Love on the Wing

Both bird and people watchers can catch colorful glimpses in Elisavietta Ritchie’s new chapbook Feathers or Love on the Wing.

Elisavietta Ritchie's Feathers

Elisavietta Ritchie’s new chapbook

In this volume, Ritchie transforms birds and nature into metaphors for living, loving and dying. Ritchie’s poems appear against full-page watercolors by artist Megan Richard.

Sometimes the matches are stark, as with the dark feathers bordering “Dinner Partners,” a poem in which Ritchie shares her meal with a turkey vulture. Other times, the colors are vivid but abstract, as with the ruby-throated figure hovering over the small poem “On a Midwinter Gift of a Hummingbird Feeder.” Ritchie’s poetry hovers over a range of emotional experience.

“Aftermath” tells the story of a black snake that slithers away from a wrecked bluebird house, reminding Ritchie of men that she has known:

he leaves on the lawn the nest
woven of moss, grass, down
plucked from the mother’s breast,
and glistening in the sun, his shed skin.

Balance this raid against “Chickens are not emotionally satisfying Pets,” where an interloping hen leaves an egg in an open dresser drawer:

found my darning needle, poked
a hole in the narrow end,
gulped the rich and slimy life inside.

In “Dead Hen Chronicles,” Ritchie remembers a bird that she plucked and disemboweled when she was 12 years old, whose sudden squawk still “resounds, resounds.” In “What Do you Do With a Dead Bird,” Ritchie balances inner and outer lives, wondering what guests will think of an avian corpse on the writing table or a “weird taste for moribund things”:

Mortality’s an expected guest.
Skulls are fine for saints to contemplate.
Permit this wingless sinner then
a cranium mere blueberry size.

In “Kingfisher on the Bookshelf,” Ritchie connects paths between poetry and dream:

If you do not write for days, do
undone poems emerge as dreams?

Together, the watercolors and poems provide dreamlike and feathery visions.

Elisavietta Ritchie

Elisavietta Ritchie

Elisavietta Ritchie, an LPR contributor, is a writer, editor and translator whose own poems have been widely published and translated into a dozen languages. She has received the 1976 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award and the 2006 Anamnesis Press Poetry Chapbook Award, among other honors.

Maryland artist Megan Richard works in watercolors, fluid acrylics and inks, finding inspiration in the nature of the Chesapeake Bay, the Patuxent River, the Adirondack Mountains and the Great Lakes.

Suzanne Shelden created the book in an original and beautiful way through Shelden Studios in the woods above the Patuxent River.

Book Review: Jen Michalski’s Could You Be with Her Now

Jen Michalski explores what it means to be vulnerable in a modern society.

Could You Be With Her Now

Jen Michalski’s new book.

At first blush, it appears that the only thing that the two novellas that comprise Jen Michalski’s collection Could You Be With Her Now have in common is that both are penned by the same author.

In the first novella, I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner, the protagonist is a 15-year old intellectually delayed boy named Jimmy who thinks that he has walked to California when he happens into a house where a bikini-clad girl is sunbathing in the yard. The girl, Jimmy thinks, is his favorite TV character Meghan, and his encounter with her sets off a series of events akin to silent, miniature explosions of mounting small destructions that can’t be undone.

In the second story, May-September, perspective shifts between an older woman, Sandra, and a younger one, Alice, who initially come together over a business transaction—Sandra hiring Alice to help her launch a blog about her life for her grandchildren to read. Their interactions slowly transform into something else, a relationship that indelibly changes them both.

In both stories, Michalski deftly explores what it means to be vulnerable in modern society, what it means to be invisible, powerless, voiceless—either from mental or physical frailty–but struggling to matter in the world just the same. How carelessness and resentments on the part of family members can inadvertently thrust their vulnerable loved ones into situations that bring unexpected, unwanted, painful consequences.

What sets Jimmy on his misadventure is his older brother Josh’s careless selfishness. Josh, who wants to watch the TV that Jimmy is already watching, pushes him out the door with the directive to find the TV character Meghan, a directive that Jimmy takes seriously. Jimmy, of course, gets lost, but this is the experience with the girl he believes is TV Meghan and that sends him down the rabbit hole as a modern-day Lenny:

Megan bites my hand. I push her away. She is smaller than me and falls against the glass door. I feel bad and put my arms around her to pick her up. We are half the way up. She hits me in the chest and the face. I get mad like when Josh hits me and leaves marks. She hits me in the face again and it hurts bad. I put my hands on her neck and twist real hard, back and forth. She puts her hands on my hands but I am bigger. Her face turns all red and its’s kind of funny how red.  She keeps moving and kicking and I try to stop her. We are half the way when she falls asleep on me. She is so heavy I let her fall and then I wait for her to stop make-believing because people on TV are always doing make-believe.

Later, after Jimmy returns home, unaware that he has fatally hurt the girl, Josh once again puts Jimmy in harm’s way through a misguided attempt to protect him. Josh’s carelessness about Jimmy’s feelings and thoughts, about Jimmy as an individual prompt him to decide what’s best for Jimmy in a way that emphasize Jimmy’s vulnerabilities, bringing about inadvertent consequences—including his brother’s abduction–that change Jimmy and his family in ways that cannot be undone.

Similarly, Sandra, the older woman of May-September, realizes how narrow she has allowed her world to become after meeting Alice. Neither Alice nor Sandra can explain their sexual attraction, but in the short time that they have to develop their relationship, Sandra emerges, bit by bit, from the shell in which she has spent years encasing herself and Alice begins to feel less lonely and more purposeful after a bad breakup.

Just as Sandra is on the brink of re-discovering herself, she suffers a health setback that enables her daughter Andrea to rob her of the one thing that vulnerable people lack the most: choice. Under the guise of looking after Sandra’s best interests, Andrea treats her not like a child but an object, deciding her future and fate without discussing it with her, effectively imprisoning her behind the bars of the vulnerability that aging brings.

Sandra, on the brink of becoming a butterfly, sees her chrysalis turned into a thing from which no butterfly can ever emerge. And a piece of Alice, who lovingly nurtured Sandra’s transformation and was affected by her forced future, dies with Sandra’s dreams. Here Sandra comes to terms with the future that she neither wanted nor envisioned:

It was getting colder now. She played the piano, a little bit at a time. Until she got her strength. Haydn and Gershwin and Mozart. Mozart for Jack, always. No Beethoven.  She played the piano while the women Andrea hired packed her things, while men took her furniture. She played the piano until they were ready to take it, and when they did, she left.

Although the vulnerable characters in both stories suffer for their susceptibility to the careless hands of others, fate and time, the book offers hope. If Jimmy fails to understand the extent of the hurt that he inflicted on the girl, he also fails to grasp the hurt that was inflicted on him. If Sandra’s future becomes the one that her daughter envisions, she still retains the one thing that cannot be stolen: her music. And Alice, who hibernates after the abrupt end to the budding love with Sandra, emerges into the light of her own spring.

Jen Michalski

Jen Michalski

Michalski’s double novellas, written in a deceptively simple but lyrical style, are aptly paired in a book that deserves to be added to anyone’s must-read list.

In addition to Could You Be With Her Now, Jen Michalski is the author of the novel The Tide King, a winner of the The Big Moose Prize, and the short story collections From Here and Close Encounters as well as the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore. She is also the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, co-host of the 510 Readings and the Lit Show and an interviewer at The Nervous Breakdown