Review of Savannah Slone’s Hearing the Underwater

Review of Savannah Slone’s poetry chapbook Hearing the Underwater, available now through Finishing Line Press.

By Melinda Ruth, Poetry Editor

In Hearing the Underwater, Savannah Slone’s first chapbook, the speaker invites you to immerse yourself with her, to linger and listen to what the water tells you. In this collection, sound is synonymous with submersion, and concerned with the truth beneath the surface. Each poem is a key to unlocking the reflective power of water in the world and in the body of the speaker.

We begin with leaving.

In the opening poem, “Venal Exodus,” or the corrupt evacuation, we are splashed with sharp sounds from the first lines, “Chalkboard paint. Bruises. / The Midnight Cousin,” and “Three sizzling ticks, pulled/ loose,” sounds that amp our adrenaline with the speaker’s to ride the fast pace of growing up in a broken home where everything ends, but also begins.

In this poem we are shown the underhanded leaving of the mother’s boyfriend in the lines, “Bang./ Mom’s boyfriend stains field// crimson with self-inflicted farewell.” Here we have the first leaving of childhood and possibilities. Here, the stanza break prolongs the experience, keeping the reader poised to fall with her. Yet the poem ends by undermining this exodus, in the lines,

Are you crying because he did this to your family
or are you just mad that now you won’t ever

get to take
this
option
out?

This ending slows the reader down and sets us up for the stagnation, this wading in place the speaker must fight against.

The second poem, “Cynicism and Other Synonyms,” continues the slowing ending of the first poem, forcing us to linger with the speaker, treading in the foggy waters of depression. By manipulating line lengths, Slone speeds us up and slows us down like the drifts of ocean waves. In the lines,

and my name
with cynicism
and other synonyms
because
here I am

                              here.

We see the effect of “Venal Exodus” in which the speaker is still here because she can’t choose the other way out.

But not all of Slone’s poems focus on the farewell. In the prose poem, “Ode to the Uterus,” the speaker takes on a more political tone and addresses the issues of reproduction and sexuality, in which another kind of water pools. Here, the speaker states, “shoreline mirrors sex mirrors making me a mother mirrors making my mother’s mother a mother mirrors.” Not only do the mother and the men became a reflection of the speaker, like the smooth surface of water, but also a reflection of history: of the speaker’s family, and of the world.

In this, and many other poems, the speaker grapples with the power of life, of men, of sex, of birth, of being a woman. This power is much different from the power of death that opens the book, and acts as a point of tension between the past and the now. The fluctuations of power become central to the speaker’s perception of life.

Further in, Slone ties the theme of the mother’s boyfriend’s suicide to the modern day gun rights debate. In the poem, “Within Your White Picket Fence,” the speaker states that,

your erasure tongues don’t
decompose your rags
don’t fill the dying bullet
holes of those whose throats are running raw.

In this instance, the poem acts as Aletheia, disclosing the truth trying to be concealed in which gun violence intrudes on life, both her own and others, and is another kind of power.

The speaker asserts that in this America, there is no way out alive.

Similarly, in the poem “hollow lungs, eyes, kazoos, and fingernails,” the speaker addresses the brutality of power, asserting that this is on all of our hands. In the lines,

we bury disassembled
rag dolls, pouring the nectar of humanity
over top the neglected
handcuffs.

The nectar of humanity acts as that water that encompasses us all, through tears, through body and blood, through that shared genesis of the world in which we were all once ocean.

In this poem, the deliberate choice to refrain from capitalizing becomes a commentary on power and subjugation in which the power of the gun, of the inherent violence of police oppression is enacted through form. As lowercase has no power over uppercase, the speaker has no power over life. The poem also incorporates shorter lines that are cut off before they can finish, contributing to the narrative.

In the penultimate poem, “The Table Where We Sat and Sit,” signals the emersion, the slow rise of the speaker. In the line, “I gifted my mom an orphaned quarter…” the quarter is integral because it returns to the theme of money, of growing up poor, but it also signifies the beginnings of the patchwork needed to quilt the past with the present, bringing mother and daughter together again. In this quarter we see the mercy the speaker needs to learn to show herself, as well as the powerplay of currency.

The collection closes with “Muzzled Magic,” a prose poem that grounds the reader in the real and now, closing off the magic of water and reflection. Through the lines, “yarn scrapes against cracked palms. Playground of ghost tongues […] the other forgotten, fossilized teeth,” we can see the cyclical nature of death and life, in which the speaker must figure out how to begin the long slow process of sewing herself back up. In this sense, the poem takes on the final form of water, a tool used as divination, as the speaker is still seeking that last exit strategy, that final farewell of death, that is our ultimate, and prolonged, ending.

Hearing the Underwater is a poignant commentary on the depths in which power and pain dwell inside the heart’s ocean. Amid the unsettling conditions of growing up and living in today’s America, Savannah Slone invites the reader to drown with her, to wallow and listen to the slow siren song of life, death and regeneration in which we all must follow. Grab a copy at Finishing Line Press today!


Melinda is a Baltimore transplant who is currently a graduate student at the University of Central Arkansas, seeking her MFA in Poetry. She has pieces published in Pleiades, The Emerson Review, Red Earth Review, and more. When not writing, Melinda enjoys good coffee, expanding her artistic tastes and late nights with her dog.
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A Collection that Brings You to Your Knees

BombingTheThinkerImage

A review of Darren C. Demaree’s Bombing the Thinker.

by Mikayla Davis, Former Poetry Editor

I met Darren Demaree once, for a few minutes at a booth at AWP. The only thing I knew about him at the time was that he wrote poetry and my classmate had helped edit his book Two Towns Over, from Trio House Press, and couldn’t stop saying good things about his work. So, when I was asked if I’d like read his newest book of poems, Bombing the Thinker, debuting this September from Blacklash Press, I was eager for the opportunity.

Now, beyond the obvious, I didn’t know much about Auguste Rodin’s famous statue, The Thinker, except for the fact that it was in a museum somewhere. I didn’t realize there were multiple casts of the statue, also created by Rodin. I could visualize the pose, as iconic as it is. None of this prepared me for these poems.

The first poem, “A Letter to Auguste Rodin About Useless Wine,” puts you into an entirely different perspective. At first, I thought I was the statue, made of mud, so lonely in the fact that I am solitary, but the introduction of wine, “a red that could / action against / our own red,” offers us something more than a red mud or clay. It brought the imagery of blood, of fighting, of war. This imagery was solidified as we learned that “he lost his legs,” and “needed / to be softened,” once more, brought me instantly to our soldiers coming home with wounds that we cannot heal completely (9). That so many people come home from a day of hostility forever changed.

This is, of course, possibly just my own history being put into the poems. I grew up in a military household and I have seen the effects PTSD and other afflictions can have on people, both military and civilian. However, with poems titled “1970,” and “The Damaged Thinker,” it is clear that Demaree is evoking The Thinker statue placed at the Cleveland Museum, which was bombed in 1970 in what many believed to be a protest against the “ruling class,” and occurred when many were protesting the Vietnam war.

Bombing the Thinker seems to reflect that idea of protest within the poems as I was drawn into the woes of not only The Thinker, but those who observed him. There seemed to be an almost pleading tone of all the speakers, to question the purpose behind the actions that destroy. “Free From Arrest,” (55) seems to question the motives of the artists and their protests, while it is followed by a poem that speaks of the seemingly the statue as “afraid to move on, / forward, at any pace (57).”

Despite the bleak imagery and haunting tone, I think overall, Bombing the Thinker is a collection of poems about recovery and about finding the joys in the little things: sharing history with your children, telling dirty jokes, the strength of getting up the next day to face the world again. This collection makes you think, as I believe anything related to The Thinker should do, but it makes you feel just as much.

And, because of this book, I might just go visit one of the local colleges as they exhibit Rodin’s work. So I can experience this masterpiece and what it has meant throughout history even further.


Mikayla Davis is a UCA MFA graduate who specializes in poetry while dabbling in fiction. After getting her undergraduate degree at Eastern Washington University, she got lost in two-year business degrees from the local community college before finding her way back to the page. She has a love for cats and magic and has been published in various print and online journals.

Purchase Demaree’s newest collection via this link:  Bombing the Thinker

The Way of the Writer

A review of The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson.

by Cassie Hayes, Managing Editor

Reading Charles Johnson’s book The Way of the Writer is a lot like listening to your dad. One-third of it is fragmented, rambling anecdotes about people you have only heard of vaguely. One-third is a lecture about how society is going to pot. Then there’s a third of hard-earned and sensitive wisdom that keeps you pondering for days. And the wisdom is why it’s worth it to keep listening.

The book came about when the poet E. Ethelbert Miller asked Johnson via email a long series of questions about Johnson’s life, career, philosophy, and craft. Johnson later took what he’d written to Miller and edited and combined the emails to become The Way of the Writer, something akin to Stephen King’s On Writing, but more literary, more academic, and more philosophical, probably because of the different personality behind the writing. Because of the fractured origins of the work, the book feels very pieced together, going through wide-ranging subjects and—sometimes annoyingly—repeating and cycling back to information and ideas over and over again. It’s not completely a craft book. It’s not completely a memoir. It’s not completely a philosophical exploration. It’s not completely anything—except an opportunity to be a fly on the wall as E. Ethelbert Miller’s brain-picking questions lead to a very talented and brilliant philosopher, educator, artist, and writer opening up about what he’s learned over his long and productive career.

Throughout the book, Johnson preaches discipline, patience, dedication, curiosity, and getting pure enjoyment out of your work. His advice ranges from the broad, such as that a writer may have to “work a lifetime before he (or she) stumbles upon that one story that becomes an archetype for our thoughts, feelings, and experiences,” to advice more specific, such as how to better develop dialogue and characterization and the importance of plot in fictional works. These more craft-specific chapters are what I find most compelling. The chapters that feel more like memoir come across as preachy, and the philosophy chapters—such as the entire sixth and final section of the book—come across as pompous and educated-out-the-wazoo.

But in those craft-based chapters, Johnson’s sensitivity and his true passion for literature and young writers shines through. “Despite its importance,” Johnson writes, “art should always be a form of play.” He rants about “the natural, inevitable, and annoying human tendency to oversimplify people and things (or any phenomenon) to make them manageable,” which makes me want to give him a standing ovation. He includes writing exercises and tips he used in his classes while he was teaching at the University of Washington, gives several examples of books that have helped him and his students over the years, and even offers a chart of a hundred of the best opening sentences of some classic books.

Although you could certainly take the fact that he includes the opening sentence of Middle Passage, his own book, on this list of best opening lines as proof that he’s not exactly the most humble or unbiased of guys, I like how personal the book is. This book is not meant to be a “how to be a writer” book. It is the way of the writer—what works and what doesn’t for this particular writer, Charles Johnson.

Out-of-touch and elitist at its worst, refreshingly old-school at its best, Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer is a fascinating read in which you feel like you’re swept away in the writer’s own thought process and struggle to make meaning of his life, world, and craft. It ends on a sour note, with the final section focused more on philosophy than writing and that detracts from the power of his earlier craft-based discussions. (A good rule of thumb for you writers out there: if you start rambling about Sartre, you’ve probably gone on too long, and you had better have a dang good reason for it.) But, despite the ending, there’s a lot to learn from someone who’s had such a long, disciplined, and passionate career. I would highly recommend The Way of the Writer for anyone interested in fiction or teaching, and it’s an interesting and helpful read for anyone interested in nonfiction. There’s not much about poetry, but the ideas behind the book are useful for anyone interested in pursuing the writing life. (If you’re willing to tune out the constant name-dropping of John Gardener, which verges on the obsessive.)

In his chapter on writing book reviews, Johnson writes that he tries to include as many quotes from the book being reviewed as possible, so that readers of the review will be able to get a taste of the author’s writing for themselves. So, I will end this blog post book review with words directly from the introduction of The Way of the Writer:

“It is all one piece, this writing life, and each activity—professional and personal—enriches the others. Everything flows from the same source—the love of art. All art.

For the kind of writer I’ve just described, what might have been selfish or ego-driven at the onset of his or her career gives way—as is always the case with love—to the simple desire to humbly serve and possibly enrich, if we are lucky, literary culture of our time.

My hope is that, if nothing else, readers young and old, beginners and veterans, will experience on these pages devoted to the craft, the discipline, the calling of writing, that predisposition to love the goodness, truth, and beauty found in fine writing (and all well-wrought art). And to see that serving such a mistress for a lifetime is, in the truest sense of the word, a privilege and a blessing.”


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She got her undergraduate degree in English from the University of Texas at Arlington, and she currently attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas. Her work appears in From Sac, Five:2:One, Work Literary Magazine, and elsewhere.

Notes From Bethabara Park: Cheri Paris Edwards & The Other Sister

 

Personal reflections while writing a book review.

by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

Country Way East, Okemos MI, Wednesday, March 16, 2017:

I believe that novels have the mystical ability to enter our lives at a moment in which we find ourselves standing at the crossroads in-search of something that changes our hearts and minds in an effort to teach us a deeper meaning of life and love and purpose. Perhaps this is the point of Cheri Paris Edwards’ novel: The Other Sister.

My love life stinks. For the millionth time, I’d reached the conclusion that my girlfriend and I had no future, besides the meaningless banality of frivolous momentary interludes of empty sex, drama, and random cafe-affairs of aimless chit-chat.

“… I keep replaying the discussion we’d had at Venice Cafe. It rang loudly in my head, trying to capture some profound meaning amidst it all. Anyways, perhaps I spoke too much and didn’t allow you to speak enough. Perhaps there were questions left without space and time to call them out and allow them to be answered. …”

Tom’s Oyster Bar, Detroit MI, Thursday, March 17, 2017:

I pulled into Downtown Detroit and headed straight to Tom’s Oyster Bar to think about Velma’s note. I ordered rum and reached into my jacket for Edwards’ book to read over notes, marginalia, and to think about the impact it had on my immediate circumstances. Edwards’ book is about safety, and the sacrifice of new beginnings, Sanita Jefferson returning to Illinois for an unrealized reunion with her ecstatic parents. Regardless of her sister, Carla’s cold receptions, Sanita plants her feet firmly on the yellow brick road and sets out for new horizons of promise and prosperity. Then she runs into Terrance Catching.

*phone vibrate*

“Confessional: I’m not sure you noticed but I placed my leg next to you on purpose. Today I wanted to touch you. I looked at you and thought of what it would be like to have you hold me, hug me, touch me. Then I thought to myself, no…he would hurt you – not on purpose, not intentionally – it’s just how he is made…how he has come to become in this world….”

St. Michael Hotel, “Whiskey Row” Prescott AZ, Saturday, March 19, 2017:

I arrived in Prescott just before the sun set low when the gentle breeze cooled native souls, where cowboys reminisced, and “Preskitian” residents told olden stories to thirsty tourists at Hooligans Pub. Rowdy, arrogant, raucous mid-westerners (the ones harboring feelings of entitlement and privileged belonging) drank Modelo beers and propped up their Walmart western boots on Hooligans ledge overlooking the nostalgic panorama that is Whiskey Row. Down below, restless vagrants meet at the intersection of South Montezuma and East Gurley Street to discuss the day’s strategy for panhandling enough change to get cigarettes and whiskey. Later that night they would meet up across the street in Courthouse Plaza to divvy up the ante before heading on over to Bird Cage Saloon for the two-dollar draft and cheap Tequila shots.

*phone vibrate*

“In my past relationships, I’m often quick to nurture, fast to heal, to capture and conceal secrets, hurts, pains. Your writing, like mine, is your place of healing…I get that…but where does Jeremy house his love…for himself? for the women both past and present in his life? I know I risk much sharing these thoughts with you. But, the older I get the more I appreciate risks and honestly… from others, from myself to myself…please come and see me when you return to Michigan. I will get you from the airport if you need.”

I would often follow them to BCS where I listen from a short distance to their sullen proclamations of love lost, sacred land long gone, and familial discount. They talk about the futility of life, where they have come from (mostly Chino Valley, Phoenix, and various Native American reservations), and where they are going (mostly nowhere and everywhere). Prescott treats its homeless community very well, offering food, clothes, money, and a warm cot if the weary destitute so desire. Every night around midnight the desperate winos and raggedy hobos congregate at the southern tip of Montezuma Street, just outside of the St. Michael hotel where they plan to head on up to BCS for a little revelry, reflection, and relief. I sat over in the far left corner and thought about the love of my life, Velma Duke, while reviewing collected thoughts and notes on The Other Sister:

  • The Other Sister is a good read…I really like the writing…Edwards is a good writer…
  • Edwards has a gift for story-telling and understands the art and craft of novel-writing. ..
  • Good characters, deftly constructed…
  • Good moral messages…spiritual meanings and good commentary on that which afflicts society today
  • Common current event themes of disease, death, destruction, HIV
  • Good use of biblical themes…thou shalt not judge.
  • Good array of family matters and complex relationships…

Bethabara Park, Winston-Salem NC, Saturday, April 2, 2017:

“Love’s in need of love today… Don’t delay, send yours in right away. Hate’s goin’ round, breaking many hearts. Stop it please… Before it’s gone too far.” –Stevie Wonder

I finished my review of The Other Sister while sitting in the back-booth of a quiet, rural suburban breakfast retreat over near Wake Forest University by historic village of Bethabara Park. I drained my orange juice, left a small tip, grabbed my Chrome Book, got in my car and headed towards University Avenue – toward High Point to visit an old friend. I Jeremyed in Damian Marley’s Road to Zion and thought about Edwards’ overall message, an essential lesson on hope, love, community, and sacrifice – all the things the African-American are in desperate need of. Sanita’s (Jazz) double-life antics catch up with her, sending her back home to face her dubious reality. Carla leads a respectable life of promise and prosperity, committed to excellence, having played by the rules, working hard to achieve and triumph. This is the complex dice both play out in this Christian amalgam of faith, love, and hard-lessons learned. Demonstrably, Edwards is from the old-school, and TOS is saturated with biblical themes, religious characters (conflicted in secular contexts, of course), and goody-two-shoe morality, which at times seemed boring at worst, contrived at best, but typical and unoriginal to say the least. Yet, the point is clear with TOS, and we get it. Love your family, forgive people, and allow for redemption in the face of repressive odds. Love is key….and we need it. All of us.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.

Book Review: The Turner House

 

A review of Angela Flournoy’s novel The Turner House, a 2015 National Book Award Finalist.

by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, left me feeling ambivalent, hopeful, encouraged and nostalgic. I liked her novel but I felt that it didn’t work hard enough to envision southern black life in 1945, to capture an honest and complete snapshot of Detroit. At times TTH read more like a passenger on a train bound for Somewhereville, riding through a Detroit train depot, snapping phone pictures while simultaneous trying to stake awake.

The (Turner) house serves as a symbol for all that is wrong with the dysfunctional Turner family: loss of stability, instability, isolation, community change. Flournoy said in an interview with Miriam Grossman of Kirkus Reviews that she supposed her novel would explore “very specific things that happened to the black population in Detroit that has never really been written about in fiction. I wanted to show the place and the people who live there are not just a sum of crime statistics or per capita income.” The following excerpt places the novel squarely at the doorstep of Detroit’s current issue:

Problem with black folks is that we’re too quick to cut our losses and let white folks decide what happens in the cities we live in. Sure the mayor is black, damn near the whole council is black, but we don’t have the real money or property. That’s how they keep us on the run (203).

Good stuff. I also liked the WWII flashbacks to Detroit’s Hastings Street, Paradise Valley days, and post-Reconstruction Arkansas. Here, Flournoy’s sense of nostalgia is easy and mellow, but I would’ve liked to see more of the violent, racialized reality of southern life rather the subtle allusions to black life in 1945. Most southern blacks were seduced by Ford’s $5-a-day wage promise, many sought peaceful refuge from vicious, unchecked, racist violence. Flournoy gives us none of that, just under-analyzed snapshots hurried away into pointless narratives which seem to go busily everywhere and nowhere. We get no real sense of the duality of (street) danger and (economic) vibrancy for which Hastings Street is famous. (WHERE IS JOHNNY LEE HOOKER?) The colorful ambiguity, the effervescent charm, and the ambivalent dynamics are never fully explored nor do we ever truly understand how the Gotham Hotel (inasmuch as why black entertainers visited this particular hotel) could boast such regular prominent guests as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, B.B. King, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Count Basie, Langston Hughes, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the inimitable Billie Holiday.

Flournoy’s research for her novel included Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and Elaine Latzman Moon’s Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918-1967 as source material. Sugrue’s study gives some attention to the area known as Black Bottom, who the people were and what the area was about. Moon is an excellent source, too, but there are other sources as well for anyone thinking about Flournoy’s topic beyond her book. The digital archives at Wayne State University’s Walter Reuther Library is loaded with primary sources on black (and white) life in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.

I found my family story in this novel, particularly the men in my family, how they came to the north for industrial jobs, leaving behind families of wives, sons, and daughters, never to return, seduced by big lights, equal rights, sturdy paychecks, Paradise Valley, and sexy, sultry women like Odella Wither. The anguishing alienation of migrant dislocation is captured quite well in TTH (i.e page 112). Even with its minor flaws and mistakes, The Turner House is still worth the read.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.