Review: Apocryphal by Lisa Marie Basile

 

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Apocryphal, Lisa Marie Basile’s first full length book of poetry, opens with an epigraph from Anais Nin’s shory story, “Mathilde” – a story that interrogates sex, violence, exoticism, and eroticism. A story in which a woman thinks she’s safe in the arms of men but at the end is shown how her “little wound” compels men to wound her further. Like “Mathilde,” Lisa Marie’s collection interrogates desire, sex, violence, love, experience, &c; unlike Mathilde, however, Lisa Marie Basile’s speaker knows she is not safe in the arms of men. She knows how patriarchal constructions of femininity can constrain and threaten her: “… they pull me apart like petals,/ and put their wishes inside me to hatch.”

This is a book that is true but not true. This is a poetry that tells us these true-ish things by showing how the world is full of stories and these stories are of women and these stories are with apples and these stories come with wounds. There are women and the speaker comes from/is one of these women: “I was born bad because she was born for pain. this is a/ portrait of bad girls.” This speaker is a “bad girl” because she comes from a woman and will be a woman and women are, in the stories that inform patriarchal wishes, reified as body always. There is a garden and there are grails. So many grails. In the patriarchal logic that this book exposes and confounds, women are grails, are receptacles, are vessels of men’s desire, wishes, and fears:

fill me in as the Sistine.

chapels I enter

find a use for me: bend me down,

I’m a bad girl, bend me down, wash it up.

the things in this holy house

say      clean the body             off of your body.

We have been told the body is dirty, the body is bad. As women, we have been told a woman’s body is dirtiest and a woman having agency over her body is the worst thing of all. Basile’s poetry wrestles with these stories; her poetry battles these mythologies that still hold us captive and still hold us back:

there is always

a garden.          there is always a garden.

there is always a woman.        there is always a woman.

there is always shame.            there is always punishment.

watch what you say,

I have knives in the brush.

Here is a poetry that is both destructive and productive. Here is a poetry that plays with the dichotomies surrounding sex, love, power, and family. Basile’s use of repetition is haunting and beautiful; her apocryphal “confessions” and the motifs that pattern them drive the reader to interrogate their own perceptions and how those perceptions are tainted by stories that shame the body and shame the woman. Basile’s poems contain both luminous joy and desperate pain; there is summer, there are white dresses, there is sex, there is Javi who leaves and Javi who comes back. Her poems bring to mind what Jeanette Winterson says is the purpose of art: “…[Art] leaves us with footprints of beauty. We sense there is more to life than the material world can provide, and art is a clue, an intimation, at its best, a transformation. We don’t need to believe in it, but we can experience it.” This poetry transforms shame into agency; this poetry transforms the “girl into sea.”

Rating 9/10

Ryder Collins has a novel, Homegirl! Her chapbook, The way the sky was now, won Heavy Feather Review’s first fiction chapbook contest, and she has two chapbooks of poetry, i am hopscotch without hop and Orpheus on toast. She wants to pull a cloud down from the sky & give it to you.

Review: Heart Strings — Leighton Meester

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For years Leighton Meester has been known for playing the infamous and delightfully devilish Blair Waldorf on the teen soap Gossip Girl, so it might be news to some that she also has a résumé in music. What started out as a career of lending her voice to soundtracks of various projects she was involved in, eventually led to a recording contract with Universal Republic. In 2009 she shared the hit, “Good Girls Go Bad” with dance-pop band Cobra Starship, but her foray as a dance pop starlet didn’t extend much further. A few unsuccessful singles later (including a duet with Robin Thicke) an album was never released and Meester and Universal parted ways. Things were seemingly quiet on the music front for a little while, until late 2010 when she started working with the band Check In The Dark, writing her own songs after being inspired by her time on the film Country Strong (whose soundtrack she also contributed) and resulted in a five city tour exhibiting her new found folk/jazz sound that fans were rather receptive to.

 

Fast-forward four years later to the release of Heartstrings, and not only is the former dance pop starlet nowhere to be found (neither is the backing of Check In The Dark) but the folksy-twang still remains. To fans who might be perplexed with the slight melodic shift and lack of the Check In The Dark sound they’ve come to know and love, this is simply Meester finding her own sound instead of molding her songs to their sound. In fact, Leighton herself has described the album of re-worked songs as “dream pop” and it couldn’t be more accurate as the album lures you in with it’s hypnotic state, like a lullaby slowly guiding you to sleep, silently promising that everything will be alright in the morning.

 

Heartstrings as a whole grapples with the yin and yang of love with a self-awareness that is both refreshing and relatable; all the while displaying a vulnerability that admits its mistakes but carries no shame. It’s title track is a tale of love taken for granted and the independence that comes with finding out just how fine you are when you are no longer tied to what is no longer able to appreciate you. “Now I’m fine without you,” Meester euphorically croons and it’s hard not to feel bad for the poor fool on the receiving end. Runaway, easily the stand out track of the album, is about reminding yourself of why and how you fell in love and how that’s enough to try, when your relationship is falling towards the wayside. Good For One Thing, one of the more upbeat tracks on the album: a calling out of an insecure, full of yourself type that apparently is …only good for one thing. Sweet is easily the trance-iest ballad on the album, while On My Side is purely top-down music, meant to be experienced on the road, coasting down the highway at no less than 65mph. L.A. a quirky little song about you-guessed-it, Los Angeles, is a kind of retro dreamlike island jingle that the Beach Boys might have sung in another life. Dreaming, the most haunting song of the album and maybe the darkest, still manages to make you feel like you’re floating on the same cloud since track one. Though most of Heartstrings showcases her lighter vulnerable voice, Blue Afternoon has a more defined firmer tone that is reminiscent of the Check In The Dark era backed with twilight melodies, still keeping in theme with the rest of this reverie.  Our last stop, Entitled, finds Meester at her most exposed. She recounts a time where she was so blinded by unrequited love, pointing fingers at both herself and her oppressor, “shame on you, but shame on me too.”  (Okay, so maybe there’s a little shame)

 

Sonically, Heartstrings is impeccable, lush, bright and dazzling as it takes you along its journey. This is the album that Taylor Swift has always wanted to make, but hasn’t quite mastered yet. In doing so, Meester effortlessly gifts you with an assortment of ballads and anthems appropriate for any stage of heartbreak.  That being said, her voice could be stronger, based solely on previous live performances and recordings. In the past she has demonstrated she can be commanding and deeper. Meester comes across soulful enough, just a bit delicate, which given the concept of the album is probably intentional. That assertive, striking delivery would have worked well on some of the albums more combative tracks (Good For One Thing, Heartstrings)

 

All in all, Heartstrings is a solid piece of work and a valiant first effort. Whether you were already a fan or just simply curious, I think it’s safe to say after a listen (unlike the inspiration behind the album) you won’t regret getting tangled in her heartstrings.

 

Rating: 8.2/10

Chantel Williams is a writer, blogger, & music enthusiast living in California who spends way too much time making playlists and not enough time sleeping. When she’s not being a faux DJ she enjoys writing poetry and short stories. You can find her at TheArtOfWrite.com and @hittingrefresh

Review: Prelude to a Bruise by Saeed Jones

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by Allen Salerno

From the title alone, a reader would expect Saeed Jone’s Prelude to Bruise to revel in the jagged and interruptive. But this is not a collection where words do their painful work with only a localized accuracy–the blow of a fist, the puncture of an awl–but rather, like an eroding tide, with something altogether more constant and cumulative. At once deeply personal and painfully universal, this is a collection that embraces the lyrical, with all its capacity to leave a lasting mark.

In its scope, Prelude to Bruise is not quite narrative, not quite without narrative. “Beware / of how they want you; / in this town everything born black / also burns,” concludes the opening poem, inaugurating Saeed’s thematic throughline: sexuality, race, body, desire, all ricocheting through a world marked by danger and threat. In the opening section, the reader is introduced to the unnamed “Boy”–conscious of his difference, experimenting with sex, at times a figure in drag, at times a confused child–in a home fractured by his father’s revulsion; as the volume continues, this story is dropped and taken up again, so that the intervening poems become at once the mirrors of Boy’s experience and all the events that occur, as possibilities, in the interstices of his life. They are his and not his, the endless combinations that might arise from the same ingredients, the same catalysts, and with the same potential for sudden cataclysm as the Harlem bus passengers suddenly drawing curbside as a building collapses: “Passengers / choking on the dust rushed / to escape the wreck / of someone else’s memory” (“Skin Like Brick Dust”). This play of refraction is one of the collection’s greatest strengths; it binds the individual poems into a greater sense of unity than many books of poetry achieve. If a certain sense of repetitiveness creeps in now and again–many mouths are pressed in many different ways, for instance–the repetition itself could be said to serve this larger thematic point.

There is much to admire about Jones’s precision of language. Landscape imagery and domestic imagery are often the descriptions of choice, but he modulates both into something stranger and more somber:

After ruin,

after shards of glass like misplaced stars,

after dredge,

after the black bite of frost:                you are the after,

you are the first hour in a life without clocks;   the name of whatever

falls from the clouds now is you (it is not rain),

a song in a dead language, an unlit earth, a coast broken–

how was I to know every word was your name?       (“Postapocalyptic Heartbeat”)

Achieving its poignancy from a catalogue of the ordinary, this excerpt ends a sequence of poems seemingly about the death of a father, but could stand in for any death, any loss, any moment when the heart’s vacuum sucks in even what is most uncongenial to fill the gap. (Jones is also one of those rare contemporary poets who uses interruptive spaces for logical, rather than merely aesthetic, purposes, and even then he employs them judiciously.)

He is also a poet unafraid of classical weight. If many of his poems are culled from nature (in both senses of the word, and with all the casual violences see in it) and deeply invested in the injustices of the modern world (homophobia, racism), he nonetheless delights in allusion. Ganymede makes two appearances, and Daphne–“in the branches / of her raised arms, birds”–becomes the avatar of a night of pill-taking. “Guilt,” which hinges on dogs that may or may not have been hit by the speaker’s truck, is in some ways a riff on the Acteon myth. And in “Room Without a Ghost,” the Sibyl’s prophecies become a way of disavowing the body: “Papers rustled, then scattered around the room / mean nothing. Do not read them / in the wind’s order. Do not fall to your knees, / deciphering the air and its invisible ink, or look up wide-eyed / expecting. No one is standing there . . . ” Metamorphosis, or its failure, is Jones’s abiding interest, his core architectural device.

Or, more accurately, I think–and with a nod to the Sibyl–translation. These poems attempt to render what constantly threatens to escape representation, but even more so, try to chart the experience of moving from one state into another. It isn’t the change itself but the act of changing that fuels apprehension. That this never fully completes, that the act might be precipitated by violence but is a disruption in and of itself, a moment of conscious erasure, that one cannot help but bear the bruises–this is the wonderfully worked keystone of the collection. “If you cut open Boy’s head, at least fifty notebooks would fall out,” the speaker notes, “each full of what Boy had written down with his eyes” (“History, According to Boy”). Telling equals incision. Before understanding must come the splitting of the body. The best result, perhaps, is approximation, and that approximation always reveals the magnitude of what can’t be conveyed. It is no accident, then, that Jones inverts a typical poetic pattern; where many contemporary poems–if they use metaphor at all–wrest the poem back to the literal by the end, he will let the poem pool into the figurative: “Climb the broken stone stairs into the hills. / Climb them into the night’s throat”; “I could be the boy /wearing nothing, a negligee of gnats”; “[her blue dress] is only the moon sees me floating through the streets, is me in a / blue dress / out to sea, is my mother is a moon out to sea.” It is for this reason, too, that the most literal of his poems, like “Ketamine and Company,” are the ones that resonated least for me. This also includes the long final section, a lyrical prose-poem in which the history of Boy is narrated more or less chronologically. There is much to admire in it–flashes of phrases, an aching tone, descriptions of teenage surfeits (like glances up a boy’s gym shorts) and sheepish acknowledgements (like silent sympathy for Achilles and Patroclus in a school reading assignment) that every gay reader will recognize instantly–but it concretizes some of the mystery and elusiveness that the collection creates elsewhere. Because the contours of Boy’s story have become more defined–his father discovers his porn stash and leaves a gun in its place; tableau-like, Boy stands with the gun pointed at his parents in their bed, then moves away having taken up his name–we’re in danger of slipping more toward melodrama and away from the tough delicacy of the bulk of the poems.

For all its immersion in the present tense, Prelude to Bruise is, at heart, a kind of memory work, and the poems act just as memory does. They slip full categorization, precise placement. Their strength lies in Jones’s ability to show us how we are shaped, with all the loneliness and liberty that glimpse backwards might yield.

Rating: 10/10

Coffee House Press, $10

Allen Salerno teaches in the English Department at Auburn University.

Review: Blood Percussion by Nate Marshall

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Among hip-hop heads, if an MC has a penchant for delivering clever, complex rhymes, people will often say “[insert name]’s got bars.” Well, after reading through Nate Marshall’s latest chapbook, Blood Percussion, it’s obvious that this poet most certainly has bars. My use of that phrase to describe the work is relevant for a few reasons: (1) Nate Marshall is a talented rapper as well as a traditional poet; (2) Marshall draws upon tenets of hip-hop in order to shape his poems. Throughout this text, it is clear rhythm was a focus-point for Marshall. As an example, consider the opening poem, “prelude.” Marshall writes:

we ain’t got graffiti over here

                        like for real art stuff but maybe

                        in the 80s he was optimistic. this was his all

                        city attempt all over the hood.

I find the above excerpt representative for its pacing. It has very natural resting points for the voice (after “here” “stuff” “optimistic” and “hood,” respectively), and each sentence also features use of internal rhyme, a common literary device employed by the most lauded rappers. But beyond the cut of language employed here, this poem and Marshall’s Blood Percussion more broadly commune with hip-hop in a more important way: authentic subject-matter.

Blood Percussion, above all else, is the honest testimonial of a young black man coming of age on the South Side of Chicago, persisting through the spells of violence that implies and consumes many of the people depicted in this poetry. In Marshall’s Introduction, he recalls his excitement over the song “Walk With Me” by a Chicago-based rapper named DA Smart, “a dark, dystopic picture of the city’s South and West Sides.” Marshall writes, “This was the first time I ever heard my hood articulated on any piece of art… There was a kind of power in DA telling the world on record I existed, however flawed, and that I could not be erased or ignored.” That, in effect, sums up exactly what kind of effort Blood Percussion is: an attempt to document the lives of Marshall and his neighbors in a way that is lost in political or academic discourse.

To that effect, Marshall’s book is a triumph. Every poem bleeds an authenticity and clarity that is both refreshing and hard to swallow; in this book, violence is a frequent guest. The reader is forced to grapple with death, with fear, with pain and anger. In true hip-hop fashion, Marshall uses language authentic to his subjects – what they speak of, how they say it – and therefore creates a work that can represent where he comes from and prove accessible to the people he is trying to give voice to. Never is this more apparent than in a poem such as “dare,” which is written entirely as a dialogue between Marshall and a second, unidentified person from his neighborhood:

What you got change

                        fo’ then?

                                                                        Nothing.

 

                        so you saying if I run

                        yo pockets right now

                        there won’t be nothing?

 

                                                                        You ain’t finna

                                                                        run nothing right

here. i’m not the one

you wanna try. i ain’t got

no change.

Dialect is an important marker of place, and Marshall makes sure to build from that. Everything is presented at street-level, every experience is fair game to be talked about, and every poem serves a specific purpose that sings in choir with every other piece included. The end result is something that is beyond confessional – it’s a type of salvation. There is much to praise here beyond the phenomenal “Praise Song,” and for that reason, I recommend that admirers of contemporary poetry and hip-hop alike pick up this book to hear an important voice cut through the static. Much like the poet on its final page, Blood Percussion, through its tangible ambition and transparency, begs of us “hold me before I disappear.”

Button Poetry, $10.00

Rating: 9.5/10

 

Cortney Lamar Charleston is a macaroni & cheese connoisseur living in Jersey City, NJ. If he’s not eating mac & cheese, he’s probably lurking on the Real GM basketball forums, watching Real Housewives with his girlfriend, or writing poems. You can find some of his poetry in Control Literary Magazine Issue #2 and various other places.