GHOST/LANDSCAPE BY KRISTINA MARIE DARLING
AND JOHN GALLAHER
BLAZEVOX, 2016; 102 PP
REVIEWED BY ANNE CHAMPION
On the back cover of Kristina Marie Darling and John Gallaher’s Ghost/Landscape, Allison Benis White says, “One measure of the potency of literature is that its strangeness forces the reader to change her world to incorporate it, or to leave her world and join the one the writer has created.” This perfectly encapsulates the experience of entering Darling and Gallaher’s prose poems.
I admit that the form of prose poetry often makes me expect narrative, and it’s the denial of that expectation that makes Ghost/Landscape a compelling, reader-centric experience. The collection begins on “Chapter Two,” trumping expectations by placing the reader on the sideline of a battle whose beginning or cause you can’t place, making the ensuing conflict as dizzying as a maze. The details render a domestic setting, but with apocalyptic imagery: “Now our train leaving the platform, another dead pigeon near the tracks” and “Not one painting on the walls, and not a single photograph in any of those boxes.” The absence of photos or art signal that there’s no past in tact in these poems, and the dead bird along the tracks gestures towards a decomposing future weighted down by terror.
Kristina Marie Darling’s new collection, Women and Ghosts, is billed as a book of essays; however, the book is an ambitious hybrid of lyric essay, literary criticism, poetry, and playwriting. Women and Ghosts is a stunning and spare account of the female characters in various Shakespearean plays partially written from the perspectives of the characters themselves—Ophelia, Cleopatra, Desdemona, and others. The other voices that make up the book include a critic, a playwright, actors, and a female speaker who seems to take on the persona of the contemporary poet herself. This contemporary speaker recounts a relationship where a man dominates her, and this story is multiplied back across all of Shakespeare’s female characters, which were of course in similar situations themselves. In other words—the chorus of female voices silencing, shouting, and stuffing this famous man’s words is impressive.
The book physically appears to be ghosted—most of the text is printed in a light grayscale that may be difficult for some to read. A few, fragile words rise to the surface of the page. Some phrases are crossed out, especially in the opening section, “Daylight Has Already Come” and the two later sections, “Essays on Production” and “Essays on Props.” Darling also keeps her favorite props close here in Women and Ghosts. Fans of her work from books like X Marks the Dress and Fortress will recognize the “good” silver, flowers, fine china, and lush John Singer Sargent-like fabrics, particularly described in women’s dresses, that dot this landscape.
Darling’s work owes a great deal to Jen Bervin's trailblazing book, Nets, a collection of erasure poems using the source text of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but Darling extends outward from this. Women and Ghosts shows us an author whose critical and creative sides meet at a rocky confluence. Aside from the critical sections, the book reads as part narrative and part performance. The duality exists most obviously in the “Women and Ghosts” section where Shakespearean scenes are summarized briefly and below, a different story is told in the footnotes. For example, the summary of Othello’s final scene simply reads, “Othello ends when Desdemona is smothered and left for dead.” However, in the footnote, the speaker wonders, “If I can act like a girl who just fell in love. Maybe then I will be able to speak” (29). This quote could be looked at as a summary of the summary. It’s conceivable that Desdemona would have this thought as her husband smothered her. It seems more likely, however, that the poet/speaker is channeling Desdemona in her own contemporary life.
Un/Wired, post-modernist Canadian Satire from the West Coast.
Byline: Subterranean Blue Poetry
Title of Book: Un/Wired
Author: Stephen Bett
Date of Publication: 2016
“Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life.”
- from Dropkick Me Jesus by Bobby Bare
Un/Wired is the 18th book of poetry by celebrated Canadian Poet Stephen Bett, is a distinctly Vancouver, West Coast Canadian event, a Poet’s sid criminy. He has been widely published internationally and his personal papers are being archived at Simon Fraser University. He is a newly retired college professor and lives in British Columbia with his wife Katie. This is the third book of poetry This Writer has reviewed for Poet Bett, the first two being Sound Off: a book of jazz and Breathing Arizona.
This book is largely a satire on culture, a sendup of the common man, the unthinking, the state of the unconscious violence of the Western World that feeds into the monied corporate elite. As if the common man is sitting alone in the middle of a vacant lot wondering what just happenned. Un/Wired breaks new ground, trashing sacred cows with a wink and a promise.
The Poet’s roots are in the protest movement of the Hippies and the 1960’s with the Beat Poet’s coming to the fore. In the satire pieces it is as if he is wearing a mask, portraying some good ol’ boy in the shop, somewhat reminiscent of a more sophisticated Charlie Farquharson, a comedic character invented by Canadian Comedian/Writer/Actor Don Harron and portrayed on stage and in books.
“Corporate Verbs On Hold
“We are leveraging our core competencies
to meet our customers [sic] needs [sic!].
Can you ballpark that low-end little hanky-pank toy for me?
Yes, done, & I’ll stick it up yr third base.
Can you dialogue on this lefty-lucy screwed up itsy-bitsy nutball for me?
Surely can, I’ll break it down in threads & boot it over your discretely stained lover-lie logbook, little puss.
Could you dis ambiguate this foamy wet freakin’ frontal screen for me?
Yes, surely I’ll spank it right through your wide open tailgate, little beav’.
Will you facilitate this toxic little bo-jingle-jangle wrangled wrinkle for me?
Yo (& yo again) I’ll wax your face up stiff & botox your wee mouth shut.
Won’t you pul-ease ideate this knotty smokin’ cracker-jacked idee fixe for me?
No can do, I’ll just toss it in your thought-box to ripple rot, little bindipper . . . “
The Poet plays with language, sometimes inventing new words, tangles and repeats words, dangles words in escarpment, an event. Most of the poetry is short tight sentences, minimalist, turning the words in on themselves with an edge of humor, a sawed off shotgun delivery, a projection of the violent culture. A jazz beat. “a bar, a bar, a bar . . . a bar harbour”
“Brought to You By . . .
You use a product to wash out the grey
you get laid
You eat a slo-fry soul food
you get laid
You buy a so badass Euro-zone car
you get laid
Drink a snappy nafty micro brewski
you get laid
Swallow a lil’ lite blue pill
you get laid (repeatedly)
You watch co’mmercial after co’mmercial
you get laid (& laid)
The book has a fantastical blue, black and white cover with binary numbers. It is divided into 4 chapters, “Pre-Wired”, “Soft-Wired”, “Hard-Wired” and “Un-Wired”. Reading the book cover to cover, it starts slow and builds into a crescendo. Beginning with satire and then in the last chapter some love poetry that highlights the emotional violence of having had too many lovers. Themes include, his grown children, his wife, the Internet, gun violence, corporate America, jazz music, American politics and culture, world politics and more.
There are at least 3 poems that touch on gun violence in the United States, a send up of the not too smart politics/attitudes that perpetuates a war culture, “Some Forms of Insanity are Instantly Insaner than Others”, “A-muricondo.edu” and “April 12th Another Day in Cleveland”. In the United States a significant number of people are murdered by gun violence; in 2013, 33,169 died by gun violence (excluding death by legal intervention).
“Some Forms of Insanity are Instantly Insaner than Others
The NRA back in the dark
& dusky shadows again
after the latest massacre
in the U.S. of A Minus
(twenty 5 & 6 year olds):
Guns don’t kill people;
People kill people!
Here’s your upgraded semi-
automatic 100 round per
nano-second bumper sticker
for folksy woodsmen &
wigged-out 2nd Amendment
People with guns kill people,
And for all the young & wacked-out
gun totin’ American-o desperad-o
shooters out there let’s update
another lil’ “teacher certified”
Sartrified bumper sticker
for y’all . . .
Hell is – other people’s
I once had a conversation with a friends older brother when in high school that went something like this, I said, “Who needs to buy a gun, if they’re not hunters, hunting animals, who would need a gun?” He said, “People buy guns because they’re going to kill people . . come on” and he looked at me as if I was stupid. And I looked at him in my naive green teenage youth and thought he was insane and indeed if this was true the world was insane. “what did this mean?” Thirty-five years later with a better understanding of the cultural malaise and “the cult of ego”, I have a better understanding of why, but I still think the violence of the United States is insane.
A subtle, raw edge, jazz to jazz in the N.A. street. A fantastical work of post-modernist satire exposing the bones of the violent Western malaise in an exciting evolution of the Beat Poet tradition, Un/Wired by Stephen Bett.Read more »
Wake and Drink by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Reviewed by Octavia Cade
30 March 2016
These two poetry collections are reviewed together. There's some similarity between them: both are centred on family and myth, with metaphors both mortuary and marine. Both are worth reading, although if you've only got time for one, I'd recommend you go for Drink. I'll get to that one in a bit.
Wake is the slimmer of the two volumes, and it is primarily concerned with death—specifically, relationships with death. Before death, after death, how monsters approach death and how women do. The last of these is particularly relevant, as Wiseman's death is a woman, come in the form of a sister. This female, familiar perception is not one I've come across often—barring F.G. Haghenbeck's portrayal of Godmother Death in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo, or Death in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, for instance—and it gives an interesting flavour to the text, one that's underlined and simultaneously undercut by the unsympathetic portrayals of corporeal sisters.
"Unsaid Negative Confession: We Hate You" (p. 49) has the poem's narrator screaming her hatred at a sister who stands block-like, impervious. Apparently she feels nothing; the hatred doesn't touch her—which is what you'd expect from a death-sister and not a blood one. Everything dies, and tantrums on the stairs make no difference. The mythological carries on, undisturbed by the messiness of human emotions and accusations. Yet the attraction remains, the sense of family loyalty even if it's one-sided.
"I like monsters" says the poet (in "Preference," p. 56). Yet "My sister is a monster," claims "Barren Monsters," (p. 58) which tells of an abusive relationship between the sister and her partner, a man who hits and pulls her hair, who calls her names. The sister is infertile, presumably because "Monsters and humans can't mate". One would presume, in this case, that it's the partner who is the true monster, but biological femininity will out—the bleeding, the "extra wombs"—for body here defines monstrosity more than action. It's a classification prefigured by early behaviour. The poem "Book of Monsters" (p. 61) states that "As a girl, my sister painted her bedroom's ceiling and walls black". Black, the colour of death, of unconsciousness and falling away, if ever there was one. The monster-sister, building a habitat.
No surprise, then, that this monstrosity is reflected in the death-sister. The walls between realities are narrow things, and easy to split. This is most obvious in the imagery of the death-house. In this world, that house is only visited once, and the door is one way. In Wake, however, the house of death is a place to be visited over and over again as one walks in and out of the underworld, as in myth and legend.
Part of this dual approach is due to the nature of the collection: Wiseman takes a genre-mashing approach, creating a whole out of disparate parts, so that more realistic poems are cheek-by-jowl with explorations of fairy tales (the Little Mermaid and Snow White) and mythology. Part of it, however, harks back to the sister-relationship of death. A sister's house is a place for visits, for taking tea and gossiping—or throwing cups and slamming doors, a grand exit full of pique and refusals. "We don't go there anymore" says the poet (in "Death's House," p. 38) and it's a saying that comes with the echoes of fractured relationships and replacement, for other people are lining up to visit Death's House. Other people live there; they "tread the family carpet, watch the doors". Yet later, in "Sister Death" (p. 46), "We know it's time to visit again" and it's all reminiscences of past lives together, of parties and shared beds and thin walls so that conversations in one room can be heard in the next. The reminiscing isn't kind. It's of a bitter thank-goodness-I'm-well-out-of-it-now sort, an uneasy truce. But if that relationship has notes of realism in it, then they're overshadowed, often, by a text that values a sort of mutual, metaphorical osmosis. In "The Entrance to Death" (p. 64) the same narrator who refuses and remembers crawls over the threshold: "I'm going in. I've been there. I can come back." In "Death's Cameras" (pp. 51-52) it's "Together we'll go back to the living".
But go back to what? Come back as what? As one of the women in "Anthology of the Dead" (p. 40) who gather under an advertising flyer, lured in to tell stories of their own deaths, their own murders? Stories of being strangled, of being framed as a suicide, of the betrayal of sisters and mothers (by sisters and by mothers? or just by daughters?). And these stories they tell—how real are they anyway? Are they just fairy stories of another kind? Ariel the amnesiac mermaid, making things up because "Anyone would forget an event that turned every step into a feeling of knives" (in "Considering Lore," p. 39).
It's a focused collection, Wake, albeit with a focus that blurs to ghost each action with metaphor and myth trailing behind like incense. That focus makes for a very interconnected text that can be a little repetitive but at least is certain of what it is: a study in death and sisterhood, one that stalks behind with a rotting welcome mat.
I read Wake before I read Drink, and really it would have been better to have read them the other way around. Drink appears to be the more foundational work, and large portions of it are dedicated to the portrayal of an abusive, alcoholic mother and the resulting suicide attempt of a sister. The effects of alcohol, of drink, are contrasted in this collection with the imagery of—and poems on—mermaids. It seems an odd combination, at first, and one that relies on wordplay—in the drink, on the drink, and so on. Bottles piling up in the rubbish bin of a cheap motel room; bottles sinking to the ocean floor and being used as toys. Empty bottles broken up and used for art; empty bottles filled with seawater and messages.