Book Review: Dan Gutstein’s Bloodcoal & Honey

Bloodcoal & Honey

Dan Gutstein’s award-winning book (Cover design: Justin Sirois)

When I find myself unaccountably crying as I reach the end of a collection of poems, when the combined weight of the poet’s felt human presence and the loss seeping through the poems brings tears, I know something powerful is about. This happened as I read one of the last poems,“The Last Out,” in Dan Gutstein’s Bloodcoal & Honey, which I finished while on a long bus journey.

The last time I remember tears burning at the end of a book of poems was when I read Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. The ambush was easier to understand: Hacker’s sonnet sequence tells the story of a love affair from birth to breakup.

I was more surprised to feel a lump in my throat with Bloodcoal & Honey. Although many of the poems paint human affection and loss with skill, just as many are forays into surrealism, verbally stunning poems that are obscure in meaning and feel to me like odd objects behind a gate that few readers may be able to penetrate. This isn’t a criticism of the collection. But it is a fact that lots of poems there have bizarre, disjointed imagery and syntax that doesn’t gel around anything real and that surrealism isn’t my thing. Yet, somehow, I mostly loved the book. Gutstein is a really interesting poet.

Many surrealistic poems are fantastic in their pure sound, such as this from “the chance”:

never let it be said that fields change. the smallish pumpkins
are sunken crowns. the stolid headstones, tablets of law.

where the wood gives a deep stand, the spotted deer glance
marbles a bound. where the wind’s raw palm thumps the season.

They alternate with poems that provide a solid sense of the speaker–his feelings and sharp, quirky perceptions–and the emotional situation. That’s where sadness seeps in.

The backdrop of Bloodcoal & Honey is the random alleyway murder of a man named Warren, someone close to the poet. Although only six poems center on the murder and criminal investigation, a sense of things being heavy, grim and out-of-joint pervades the first section. (Six poems in the last section of the book concern the death of Gutstein’s brother and take on a gentler mournful tone). It’s not a depressing read, though, because the writer’s voice feels like company and because he, the grieving survivor, so intensely observes and interacts with the world around him as he goes about his business.

It’s clear how ragged grieving is: thoughts of Warren and the shooting, which the speaker didn’t witness, intrude at the most mundane times. In “The Speed Break,” the poet is trying to break a board in karate class:

“Come on, man,” my teacher says. But I’m all stares
at the black knot. Staring, as he concludes, softly, “—Shit.”
A scene I can’t possibly imagine. The gun tapping Warren’s back.
Then a twitch, then a flash. No pain, nothing but a thin mix
curling down the shoulder chunk. A hole in his back. The black knot.

In “The Alleyway Now,” he’s walking in a meadow with a friend:

…as I turn and see you
hipdeep, a stalk between your teeth.
You call my name, Daniel.
I tilt my head, thrust my hands toward blue.
If I could fabricate, I’d say, yes,
I heard footsteps, a gun clatter off brick.
I followed blood drops behind a dumpster
where I found Warren, a hole in his back.
A lamp came on in the alleyway.
Night had moon but no color, shots but no rescue.
If I could fabricate, I’d say, yes,
I cradled his shoulders.

The title suggests that the alleyway of the shooting is within the speaker at every moment. That’s fitting because these poems are urban. There’s an edginess to them. Even when we can’t be at all sure of the situation or story, we know we’re in a city spot, a gritty one. In some poems, details show we’re in DC. Gutstein seems to be fascinated with hidden corners of the urbanscape, especially anything industrial, low-tech or decaying:

Filmy
here as in tonnage of diesel,
a transformer humming sidewise torsion.
Loopy flowers unbuckle beside barbed wire.
(“Industrial Island”)

A crowd grew across the street from the wrecking ball, which thumped the dying hospital further into a spaghetti of rebar and boxy rubble.
(“Redoubt”)

I liked the book’s eclecticism, and I wasn’t the only one. How depressing to plough through a new collection and find 45 poems from the same mould. Not here! There are prose poems, anecdotal poems, unidentifiable stanzaic forms, lyrics, stuff smacking of “language” poetry and more. Still, techniques characterizing Gutstein’s voice permeate the poetry: language heightened by unusual, juicy word choice; a tendency to write in fragments; vivid images that don’t quite coalesce into a unified scene; phrases repeated unsettlingly. A touchstone mood: besides loss and urban grit, missed human connections.

In considering why reading Bloodcoal & Honey feels glorious rather than sad, I’m reminded of something Harriet Barlow, Director of the Blue Mountain Center, said to me: “Poems about sad things aren’t depressing. Meaningless things are depressing.” Gutstein’s poems never feel meaningless, opaque though some may be.

It was gratifying to see that the local Washington Writers’ Publishing House awarded Bloodcoal & Honey the 2011 poetry prize and is still publishing gems.

Dan Gutstein

Dan Gutstein self-portrait

Online editor’s note on the author, lifted from his siteBloodcoal & Honey is Dan Gutstein’s second collection of writing. His first, non/fictionwas published by Edge Books in 2010. His writing has appeared in more than 65 publications, including Ploughshares, Denver Quarterly, Ninth Letter, The Iowa Review, The American Scholar, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English and The Best American Poetry, 2006 as well as aboard metrobuses in Virginia. He has received awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, University of Michigan, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and other groups. He works at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and served as Visiting Assistant Professor in creative writing at The George Washington University. He was named the 2010-2011 “hottest” professor in America by Rate My Professors, and his body temperature has risen accordingly.

LPR at Five: Who We Are Now

With our tenth publication, the Make Believe issue, we reached our fifth year. Before the launch of the eleventh, the landmark Social Justice issue, we’re pausing to look at what we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. One of our founders, Brendan Donegan, has written an essay on the origin of our name. Here, we consider the people behind that name…

LPR September 2011 Retreat

Some retreat participants, from left to right seated: Jen Grow, Linda Joy Burke, Lynn Weber, Fred Foote, Mike Clark. From left to right standing: Laura Shovan, Tim Singleton. (Photo: Eva Quintos Tennant)

When I needed a few words on who we are these days, I naturally turned to Michael J. Clark, former Baltimore Sun reporter, one of the LPR founders and one of our current publishers. Mike, naturally, responded by basically writing about everyone but himself.

In the interest of honest reporting, I must mention that without Mike’s steady hand guiding us, we could never have arrived where we are today. And thoroughly enjoyed the trip as well. Mike is one of those rare individuals who remembers those two important words: thank you.

Now, here’s what Mike has to say about the publication and about us:

LPR has been motivated from the beginning by a love for what we do. I often hear LPR compared to a family or a collective. We constantly strive to step beyond the edge of our ignorance and open the door to talented folks interested in extending the value of good poetry, prose and visual art to our community, the Baltimore-Washington area, the mid-Atlantic region and–ultimately–who knows where.

Over the years, we have assembled a staff that is inventive in the ways we turn out a print journal, hold public readings and bring creative thinking to our website, Facebook page and Twitter.

For the past year, our editor has been Laura Shovan. An award-winning poet, Laura strengthens the fabric of LPR with her common sense, gift for the right word and thoughtful leadership. The issue now in production, Social Justice, is guest-edited by poet Truth Thomas. Through occasional guest editors, we open up LPR to new readers, writers and artists. Despite the collective wisdom that goes into our publication, the editor remains the captain of this ship, responsible for getting the crew and publication safely to shore, when all is said and done.

Laura has lots of help from Fiction Editor Jen Grow and Design Editors Stephanie Lemghari, who alas will be leaving us, and Deb Dulin, who fortunately will take her place. The design editors are expanding the size of the print publication and will introduce innovations in upcoming issues. Laura has encouraged Michael Salcman, Baltimore neurosurgeon, poet and past President of the Contemporary Museum, to advise on art. His selection of modern pieces for inclusion in the journal, combined with his commentary, gives LPR a new vision of what art can be.

Tim Singleton, haiku poet and all-around good guy whose sensibility is uncanny, is co-publisher. He has ties to the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitso), as does Contributing Editor Susan Thornton Hobby. Susan’s interviews give our readers first-hand access to the thoughts of some of the nation’s best poets and writers.

LPR August 2011 Retreat

Others at the retreat. Left to right, seated: Nancy Berla, Stephanie Lemghari, Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg, Truth Thomas, Jen Grow, Lynn Weber, Eva Quintos Tennant, Mike Clark, Fred Foote, Ilse Munro, Laura Shovan. Left to right, standing: Kathy Lawson, Tim Singleton, Deb Dulin (Photo: Linda Joy Burke)

Truth and fellow poet Linda Joy Burke are also part of the brain trust, contributing their verse and attracting other writers and artists to alight on the magazine.

The website LPR presents to the world is spawned in the lively brain of Ilse Munro, who pushes us to move ahead on many fronts while overseeing a thoughtful series of blog posts about literature and art. She brings a powerful presence to our work.

All told, over a score of us bring our gifts to the journal. That includes Nancy Berla, who coordinates our grant proposal writing, Kathy Larson, who oversees financial matters, Dan Pendick, who offers us his expertise in multimedia, and Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg, who will take the lead in our educational outreach efforts this coming summer.

At the first planning retreat we held this past summer, it was good to see that we had grown. Not only had we added the aforementioned Deb Dulin but also Lynn Weber, who is helping with the production of the print journal, and Eva Quintos Tennant, who has taken on the demanding role of communications coordinator. More recently, Valerie Saint-Amand has brought a youthful perspective to our seasoned crew.

As co-publisher, Mike Clark–no relation to the first LPR editor–is a former crusty news reporter who has age on his side.

In the end, it gets back to sharing the love of what we do. When folks get upset with each other, we remind ourselves that we all share the same abiding desire to turn out a damn good literary and arts journal. That committed collective feeling is reflected in how open we are as we sit around a room and talk about putting together a publication that spreads the love of literature and art to an ever-expanding audience.

Our thanks to the organizations that have awarded us the grants we need to publish LPR. These include The Horizon Foundation, the Columbia Foundation, the Howard County Arts Council, the Howard County government, the Rouse Company Foundation, the Maryland State Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The first nine LPR issues were generated under the skillful editorship of Michael R. Clark. Many of those were produced online with Michael located in Singapore, where he serves as Chair of the High School English Department at the Singapore American School. In the next installment of “LPR at Five,” this Michael Clark will share his experiences from the early days of our journal.

Meet the Neighbors: The Baltimore Review

A journal like Little Patuxent Review requires a vibrant literary and artistic community to thrive–and even survive. In appreciation of the cultural organizations around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” where we provide you with some personal introductions.

BR Webmaster

The Baltimore Review's webmaster, hard at work exploring online options with a little libation at hand

These are tough times for literary journals. So when I heard the good news that our good neighbor, The Baltimore Review, was about to be back in business, I rushed to request a re-introduction for our readers. Despite everyone there being swamped by matters no less monumental than moving from a print to an online presence, I was graciously sent the following straightaway:

Please meet The Baltimore Review, residing at, well, we can’t say exactly where it resides since, like many literary journals, it has always been the effort of editorial staff members toiling alone in their basements and at their dining room tables and occasionally together over mojitos and martinis to create eclectic collections of poems, fiction and creative nonfiction. However, we can say that the BR regularly receives advertisements for deals on office furniture and telemarketing calls from the Yellow Pages, which never cease to amuse.

Barbara Westwood Diehl, the founding editor and back at the helm again after a long break from the day-to-day business of completing forms, filing, responding to testy inquiries and making sure that people get paid—no one on the BR staff, of course—will now transition to the first person singular to give you a small glimpse into one editor’s life.

The BR came into being in the mid-1990s when I finally had the opportunity to start a literary journal. I say “finally” because my first attempt was in high school. My first fundraiser was at an Episcopalian church. It brought in about $30 and a number of the attendees left the fellowship hall to go drinking in the graveyard. On the outs with the Reverend and a bit demoralized, I donated the money to the church. I kept writing but my editorial ambitions remained submerged for a good 25 years.

The old ambitions bubbled up when I was involved, first as Treasurer and then as President, with the now-defunct Baltimore Writers’ Alliance. With the help of a talented group of writers, more excitement than sense and seed money from the Maryland State Arts Council, I launched the first BR.

It was a different world back then. No Facebook. No online submission systems. I drove to the post office almost every day to retrieve submissions from the PO box. After sorting them, I drove to reviewers’ houses with plastic grocery bags full of submissions. They wrote “yes” or “no” and their comments on the envelopes and drove them back to me. Acceptance letters and rejection slips were mailed and each issue came together on my dining room table. The first copies arrived at bookstores (most no longer in existence) via the trunk of my car. Then via Ingram Periodicals. What a trip it was.

But if you’re smart, you reach a point when you know that it’s time to let someone else take the wheel. So I did. And I thank Susan Muaddi Darraj for growing the journal, as its own nonprofit, in the years since 2003.

When it came time for Susan to step down, I couldn’t resist the challenge of launching the BR into the next phase of its existence. The fine poet Kathleen Hellen agreed to serve as Senior Editor with me and a number of excellent writers agreed to work with us. I know that all of them will bring wonderful ideas to the table.

With the help of our webmaster, Matt Diehl (yes, he’s my son, which makes his service an incredible bargain), we’ve launched an interim website and are working on ideas for a full and–hopefully–lively site that will keep readers and writers coming back for more. Note that we haven’t kissed print goodbye. Work will still be collected into print issues. And it’s a safe bet that they’ll end up back in the trunk of my car.

The Baltimore Review will re-launch as an online journal in 2012. In doing so, it will join a number of excellent literary publications selecting this route. We wish all of them well!

Note: Works by both Barbara Westwood Diehl and Susan Muaddi Darraj have appeared in the Little Patuxent Review. Go to the Summer 2011 Make Believe issue section on this site and watch a video of Barbara reading her poem, “What the Bee Sees, and Doesn’t See.” Then read Susan’s account of the craft underlying her essay, “My West Bank Education: 1998,” published in the Winter 2011 Water issue.