A Sunny Place with Adequate Water, Mary Biddinger’s new collection from Black Lawrence Press, is an idyllic scene…post-apocalypse. It is where beauty becomes darker. Where the light of an electric rail line illuminates an abandoned parking lot and where bombs are filled with thread.
The collection itself is so much about gentrification and a neighborhood falling to ruin. The great duality of this collection is displayed most prominently in Biddinger’s quick turns in language. The poems are jarring and honest, and so many of the lines reach out to push you, two-handed across the chest.
In “Pick-Your-Own,” she writes, “You would take the rails apart with an ax/ and a little anger. You/ always had the jaw for that kind of work.” There is an authentic sarcasm and bite to these words, a realness that powers through the work.
Lines like “The cold trickle of children/ from a neighborhood school turned/ into a simulated knife/ fight between warring factions,” and “Remember when your biggest worry/ was where? And now it’s how many/ leave will keep you alive” are standouts from the first poem, “Fortunes and Misfortunes” because they set the tone. It’s as if the poem is saying, “Indeed, we’re going to spend some time talking about the things I’ve seen and the way my city will never be as it was.”
A series of poems involving real and imaginary coin-operated machinery is woven throughout the collection—items like, “Coin-Operated Rattle Without a Snake,” “A Coin-Operated Lung and a Half,” and “A Coin-Operated City of the Past.” The duality is here again in the many juxtapositions of language. In the mechanical, unnatural, sterile way that machinery is often presented, pushed up against the way it is meant to provide a warmth, a service, a convenience.
We see this duality here in “A Coin-Operated Railroad”:
My tautologies weren’t taut at all, so I
did what anyone else would do. I departed
then re-embarked. Doubled my nothing.
Climbed the frost-tip tree that was no tree
but just a daub of glue to seal a root.
In these many Coin-Operated poems, the speaker’s contradictions can be seen as a type of renewal and replacement; in the same way that gentrification represents a type of replacement (or displacement). In “A Coin-Operated Gentrification Zone of the Heart,” the poet writes, “My/ city died because we made it die, and then we loved it even more./ Suddenly we were authentic, and the stores started carrying our likenesses.” Biddinger gets at the essence of gentrification here. She subtly identifies a shift in community by displaying just how quickly an enterprise will commodify the artifacts and ethos of a population for the sake of profit.
When inside this book, one may be reminded of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, wherein the experiences can singularly exist as the speaker’s alone, but can also exist as the shared experiences of those around them. In Mango Street, we watch a changing neighborhood from the perspective of a child, and similarly, in A Sunny Place, the reader moves through this collection with the feeling of being someone inside the same house, on the same street. You too are familiar with the “windows issuing/ cologne that smelled like cherry disinfectant” and “a girl’s purple jacket snagged/ across a length of chain link.”
In this collection we encounter something like an individual stream of consciousness with perfect interruptions of lucidity and reflection. One such exemplary poem is “Coin-Operated Engine Finds Its Steam,” where “The coin-operated Abraham Lincoln had been whacked/ in the rear by a tin woodpecker for the last time.” erupts later into “The first time/ I really looked inside your mouth, I noticed a lack// of fillings. So I saturated you. It was the only thing I could/ do at the time.” While some lines may seem random or misdirected, the poet always comes back to a series of stunning images, which allows the reader to make their own meaning of the work.
Biddinger, never afraid to be a bit silly or humorous, A Sunny Place is a little weird, a little quirky, and a lot beautiful. We feel that, yes, this place was once lovely, and yes, that is all disappearing. In the final poem of the book, “Inside Every Vending Machine It’s 1979,” the reader is invited to the intimacy of being inside oneself as a witness of something gone missing. Just like the speaker of this book and the people who live in a city where the lights are flickering in elegy, “Everything/ is looking for a way out, or a way back in.”
We’re doing another Letters for Kids giveaway!
This time, win a brand new, hardcover, autographed copy of Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb (who also wrote our 2/1 letter, about to be put in the mail)! All you have to do for a chance to win is head over to our Letters for Kids Facebook page before February 5th and enter a short comment on this post telling us where you first heard about Letters for Kids. The winner will be announced on the Letters for Kids Facebook page on February 6th.
Saturday 1/31: The TEAM reads Five Plays by the TEAM. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.
Monday 2/2: Paul Fischer discusses A Kim Jong-Il Production, a look at North Korea’s propaganda machine. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.
In the New Yorker, Garth Greenwell has a tribute to the Chilean writer, artist, and activist Pedro Lemebel.
At The Millions, Matt Seidel has some thoughts on the “author x meets author y” formula, and he “set[s] out to conceive of and review the most convivial work imaginable, The Summit (an entirely fictional work of fiction).”
There’s a misconception about what is truly shocking – that the shocking is the purely explicit. It seems to me that’s easy, and it’s been done in literature for centuries. What’s problematic, the real way to be shocking, is to have an unstable tone, or to use the wrong tone, the tone that’s not appropriate or that’s deemed inappropriate.
Two-time Granta best young novelist Adam Thirlwell talks to the Guardian about his third novel Lurid & Cute, confessional writing, and how to be truly shocking.
The LA Times reports that unpublished letters and poems from Jane Austen’s family have been acquired by the Huntington Library. While none of the letters are from Jane Austen herself, the correspondence will still “provide valuable insight into Jane Austen and her world.”
Friday 1/30: The American Library Association sets up the 2015 Chicago Midwinter Meeting at McCormick Place until Tuesday, February 3. You don’t have to be a librarian to attend, but you will need to register.
Chicago radio personalities make their voices heard and faces seen at Funny Ha-Ha’s “Radio Sweethearts” edition. Your $5 donation benefits SitStayRead, an organization dedicated to improving literacy rates for at-risk children. The Hideout, 6:30 p.m.
A rediscovered 35-year-old letter from Roald Dahl dispenses advice to a young writer in his trademark irascible fashion. After scolding the letter writer for “asking to much of [him],” Dahl offers this and other craft gems:
. . . eschew all those beastly adjectives. Surely it is better to say “She was a tall girl with a bosom” than “She was a tall girl with a shapely, prominent bosom”, or some such rubbish. The first one says it all.
And what do we make of chocolate? Are you not afraid that it will burn your blood? Could it be that these miraculous effects mask some kind of inferno [in the body]?
The Public Domain Review examines 17th century texts to discover the history of coffee, tea, and chocolate in Europe.
“Of all the voices you hear/one must be your father’s.” In The Night We’re Not Sleeping In, winner of the 2013 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, the voice we must hear is Sean Bishop’s, as he shares a deeply personal, non-linear search to justify the sudden death of his father. Though the book begins in a place of depression and hopelessness, Bishop eventually learns to cope with his father’s absence and hope that his sadness is only temporary.
The Night We’re Not Sleeping In functions like a self-help manual. Scattered intermittently throughout the book’s four sections are a series of poems titled “Secret Fellow Sufferers,” in which Bishop directly addresses the reader, forging a relationship. Though the desire to impart wisdom and advice on its readers can make the book seem educational at times, it is never pretentious, as Bishop portrays himself as vulnerable, honest, and emotional. Even long after his father’s death, he remains shaken by the tragedy – in “Adam Reports From The Distant Future,” Bishop writes, “Still, the coat rack in half-sleep looked like a body.”
The opening poem, “Terms of Service,” is a prelude to the four sections that comprise The Night We’re Not Sleeping In. As its title suggests, “Terms of Service” reads like a contractual agreement between Bishop and the world around him:
Should the signed become ‘anxious,’ ‘unhappy,’ or ‘rattled’
the signed shall strive to remain in compliance
with his duties, to venture bravely forward, to understand […]some people may depart without notice.
This structure shows that Bishop feels stuck, as though he is legally obligated to carry on with his life as normal when he is too debilitated to do so.
Sean Bishop masterfully employs various tones throughout The Night We’re Not Sleeping In. As opposed to the elevated, formal language in the prelude “Terms of Service,” the first of the book’s four sections is sinister and disturbing, following a demonic reinterpretation of the biblical Adam. In “Reading Dante in the ICU,” Bishop writes, “Today I’d like to talk for a while about death/among the gift shop’s plush koalas and chrysanthemums.” Bishop frequently uses this technique, in which he juxtaposes somber statements with playful, everyday imagery, intensifying the impact of his troubles. Soon, in “Red Shift,” Bishop becomes vulnerable for the first time, no longer hiding behind the vices of his character Adam:
Everything was moving away from me […]
My father’s death was moving away from me—
becoming darker, becoming cooler.
When Bishop finally allows himself to openly grieve, the reader gains more sympathy for the complexity of his struggle – a complexity that is mirrored in the book’s quickly-evolving emotions and failure to follow any linear chronology, jumping back and forth between moments shortly after the death of Bishop’s father to times in the far-off future.
Bishop’s choice to separate the book into sections reflects the progression of his grief. The third section of the book acts as a reprieve, as though Bishop is trying to escape his reality by creating an eight-part story about Karen, a reimagined Hades. When introducing part three, Bishop borrows an epigraph from Aristophanes’s The Frogs, which reads, “Who’s here for rest from every pain or ill?” But even when Bishop tries to distract himself with mythological fantasy, the themes of his writing still center on what happens after death.
As the central “Secret Fellow Sufferers” series develops, the poems both become more hopeful and more directly addressed to the reader, whom Bishop assumes is suffering along with him. The fourth and final section of The Night We’re Not Sleeping In opens with the variation of “Secret Fellow Suffers” that gives the book its title:
Secret Fellow Sufferers,
please join me in compiling
some likenesses to the night we’re not sleeping in […]
It might be my imagination of the funeral suit, dangling
from the actually-empty hanger on the closet door.
By asking his fellow sufferers to join him, Bishop establishes the idea that he’s trying to make a connection with his reader to replace the relationship he lost with his father. In the final poem of the book, “Notes Toward Basic Betterness,” Bishop describes what he is “feeling for you right now/secret reader,” shattering the barrier between reader and writer. In this, we find the true depth of the pain that Bishop is experiencing, transcending outward from the text of the poems. Though Bishop remains lonely and distressed at the book’s conclusion, we see that he is making an effort to move on. Though writing morbid poems about the biblical Adam in psychotherapy and sleepless nights with no end were a necessary component to Bishop’s grieving process, he now wants to better himself, and in turn, better his secret fellow sufferers.
It’s the first time I’ve ever worked on a piece of writing where I’m writing about things being kind of great. It’s not my experience framed against a context of some sort of struggle or rebellion. As a writer it’s always easier to write about things that are kind of terrible than about happiness, but I kind of got into it.
It’s a Friday so I get to lead with a story about a blind baby seal.
The important take-away here is that the Eiffel Tower once had a penthouse apartment in it.
I guess chickens are smarter than we thought too (everything is smarter than we thought).
Let’s all take a walk through a secret soviet nuke stashing bunker.
If you are uncertain about whether you’ve made it as an author yet, you can self-check using Electric Literatures’s flow chart.
At The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone reviews BOMB Magazine’s “The Author Interviews,” “a collection of 35 interviews spanning 30 years.” He meditates on the competing definitions and modes, concluding he is “drawn” to interviews not “for their performative components” but for how they act “as literary duets.”
Fraternities do not have a monopoly on rapists: not at UVA, not at any frat, not even the deep Southern ones where upwards of 100 guys live in the house. (The plumbing; one shudders.) But: what the fraternity system does collect together is a group of male teenagers who enter their organization through rites of interpersonal physical violence, and who, military-style, reproduce this violence onto each other’s bodies. “Thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, [they] cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1785, about the male children of Virginian slave-owners. The sentiment there is still viable. Fraternities are worth examining as groups of rich, young, mostly white boys who were either born or bred into a tradition of getting away with things they should not.
Jia Tolentino, features editor at Jezebel, went to UVA to look at the culture of sexual assault on campus in the wake of the infamous Rolling Stone article.
By now Miles Davis has become a cornerstone of modern music. We can’t get rid of him, which is good, because we would never want to. Miles Davis is inside us; he surrounds us, and permeates our collective consciousness. For that reason, it’s easy to take him for granted. But his ballads force us to pause and take in the special poignancy of his musical sensibility. Davis’s remake of “It Never Entered My Mind“—a Rodgers and Hart show tune from 1940—stands among the best of them.
Thursday 1/29: Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt shares his entertaining memoir about coming of age as a performer and writer in the late ’90s while obsessively watching classic films in his book, Silver Screen Fiend. Powell’s City of Books, 6 p.m., free.
Marilyn Sewell reads from her latest book, Raw Faith. Annie Bloom’s Books, 7 p.m., free.
Award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior analyzes the ways in which children shape the lives of parents in her new book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Powell’s on Hawthorne, 7:30 p.m., free.
In the New Statesman, Oliver Farry investigates the times we notice anachronisms in film, television, and literature—and why we care.
When I left the house on Pace Street and moved to Vermont, I became a writer. I became a writer because I was so broken down by early motherhood that I stopped fearing criticism long enough to throw my work out into the world. Moving into an old farmhouse, I began collecting again, amassing things I thought reflected my aesthetic. My new life. Quilts, jadeite bowls, glass bottles, chairs worthy of a napping cat and a writer working with a baby asleep on her shoulder.
If you have ever had the opportunity to hear Brian Turner read his poetry in front of a live audience, you might have noticed a technique he uses. Between incredibly serious poems like “Here, Bullet,” he will tell hilarious stories about his time in the military and his life in general—stories that are hilarious at his own expense. As a world-renowned poet and a member of a small segment of the American population that has volunteered to serve in the military during the recent wars, Turner uses these stories to present his unique writing in a way that can be understood by everyone.
Turner uses the same technique in My Life as a Foreign Country, one of the most important memoirs to come out of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book equalizes Turner and his audience, but not through humor. Instead, he creates distance by removing his narrator—himself—from the time, place, and even the objective reality of his own story.
He begins by describing himself as an unmanned drone flying over and examining his story from a great distance. Although he discards the drone metaphor early on, he never gives up on its metaphorical perspective, which allows him to look forward, backward, inward, outward, and beyond without barriers or consequences. This technique gives his memoir the feeling of an anthropologist trying to make sense of a foreign country from another time. But in this case the foreign country is Turner himself.
My Life as a Foreign Country is the story of Sergeant Turner as told by Brian Turner the poet. As with most wartime memoirs, it is about Sergeant Turner’s upbringing, his decision to enlist in the Army, and his experiences before, during, and after the war. By the end of the book, Brian Turner proclaims Sergeant Turner to be dead: His life, now captured in this brief work, has been understood as well as it will ever be.
Turner draws on his extraordinary ability as a poet. His prose is often lyrical, and he relates his own story as a microcosm of the broader story of human warfare. He uses dreams and a metaphysical imagination to discuss the unknowns of the future, and he uses fiction, screenwriting, and even poetry to describe the unknowns of the past and present. Although he is not strict with his own chronology, he jealously controls the pace of his work: His 138 chapters are sometimes a single sentence, and sometimes his sentences are a single word.
The distance that Turner creates between Brian Turner and Sergeant Turner not only allows others to access his work; it also allows him to assess his experiences matter-of-factly. Unlike most wartime memoirs, My Life as a Foreign Country is unglamorous and unglorious, almost seeking to make the soldier’s experiences anonymous. Almost without exception, he concludes that his wartime leaders have the wrong priorities for their mission and their men—a devastating critique within military culture. He describes his peers as crass and crude, even for an all-male infantry unit deployed to a combat zone, but he does so in a way that allows them to maintain their humanity. He lets no one off easy. But he saves the harshest truths for himself. He admits to his fears in combat, denying any personal heroism and even calling himself a coward. He details his involvement in events and situations that he is not proud of—like how he and his comrades treated Iraqi prisoners—that most other wartime memoirists would certainly omit.
Turner’s style, approach, and honesty combine to make a unique wartime memoir. Like much of the literary fiction from the war in Afghanistan—The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, You Know When the Men are Gone, and others—Turner’s memoir provides a gritty response to the sanitized and sensationalized wartime narratives of mainstream journalistic accounts. But because Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country is presented as nonfiction with a deeply reflective, thoughtful, and stylistic approach, it belongs to a special class of wartime memoirs written by artists, like photographer Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss it So and literary fiction writer Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.
Turner’s choice to approach his own story in a way that transcends political narratives, transcends his war, and even transcends himself, makes his memoir exceptional. Like the humorous and self-deprecating anecdotes that he uses to soften the content of his poetry, this technique in My Life as a Foreign Country makes his war everyone’s war, which is something that has been missing since the beginning of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Don’t discount the power of memes to control minds. The National Post reports:
Feminist Ryan Gosling is an “image macro,” a photo superimposed with text to humourous effect — and frequently employed for political ends. The ultimate takeaway from the University of Saskatchewan study, say the researchers, is the somewhat surprising revelation that these memes could actually be affecting people’s belief systems.
After a Times article last March criticized Spain (and its literary establishment) for failing to unravel the mystery of the precise location of Miguel de Cervantes’s grave, a reinvigorated search may have finally yielded results. Cervantes was buried in Madrid’s Trinitarias convent, but the specific site was not marked (or not marked well); the discovery of a casket with the initials M. C. has become a strong candidate. The Paris Review has an overview of the saga, including some theories as to why Spain was slow to action in identifying the landmark.
The Torres family learned how Christopher died from watching the news the next day. At a press conference, the department’s chief public-safety officer said that two officers had tried to arrest Christopher at home, but, when he resisted and grabbed a gun from one of them, the officers felt that their lives were in danger. The local television stations ran an unflattering picture of Christopher with his eyes bugged out. One station reported that the “police suspected Torres is responsible for several violent road rage incidents around the city.” The police department said publicly that Christopher had a lengthy criminal history, which was untrue. He’d never been convicted of a crime, though he had been arrested once, for public affray, disorderly conduct, and impersonating an officer: he’d fought with a man who had illegally carried his gun into a restaurant where Christopher was eating. Christopher told the man that he was a government agent, tackled him, and took the weapon. When asked to show his credentials, Christopher flashed his library card.
Over at the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv takes a look at the Albuquerque Police Department, who’ve attained one of the highest rates of fatal shootings by cops, but not a single officer indictment.
Good people of the Bay Area!
Please join The Rumpus at Green Apple Books on Thursday at 7 p.m.
There will be free wine and beer.
And there will be free wine and beer. Even more of it than previously reported.