Review of A Breeze You Whisper in In A Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry

Whispers and Flames in Kathryn MacDonald. A review of some poems by Kathryn MacDonald in A Breeze You Whisper (Poetry) (2011) Hidden Brook Press. Canada – p. 131-134

Surprises are wonderful, especially when they involve a review of your book in a collection with poets such as Milton Acorn, Margaret Atwood, and Al Purdy among others. I’ve received the publication notice by email and the book is on its way. More about the collection to come. In the meantime, here is a bit of blatant self-promotion of my collection, A Breeze You Whisper.

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First, from the press release:

In a Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry is an insightful collection of essays and reviews, written from the poetic heart of Professor Olivé. The authors covered in this astute critical study are treated with heart felt respect:

Milton Acorn, Merle Amodeo, Margaret Atwood, Katharine Beeman, Allan Briesmaster, Patrick Connors, James Deahl, Antony Di Nardo, J. Graham Ducker, Kate Marshall Flaherty, Katherine L. Gordon, Kimberley Grove, Richard M. Grove, Don Gutteridge, Lala Heine-Koehn, Keith Inman, Bruce Kauffman, Donna Langevin, John B. Lee, Norma West Linder, Kathryn MacDonald, Lisa Makarchuk, Bruce Meyer, Colin Morton, Marvin Orbach, Deborah Panko, Al Purdy, Sarah Richardson, Linda Rogers, Glen Sorestad, Anna Yin.

The review:

“Whispers and Flames”

My nights are good ones. Besides friends, family, sharing and joy, poetry books flood my bed and my mind before I go to sleep. It is a wealth found nowhere else. Last night it was not The Voice of the Land, or the People´s Poet. Last night it was a whisper in my ears, a dance of words and flames before my eyes: Kathryn MacDonald.

If I had to choose one word for her poetry, I´d say “sensuality.” It overflows the book´s margins shipping fruit and fire that crackles in its pages as I hold my breath caught in the delicacy of her phrases or gaspingly sigh marveled at their attractiveness.

I went through some of her poems. “A Breeze You Whisper” entwines, with simplicity and smoothness, two major themes at the core of poetry: nature and love. Neither the book´s title nor the poem´s has a comma, but its single stanza includes it in the first two lines (“A breeze, you whisper. A bird, you soar and hover”). These pauses are dictated, and intended, by the poet as a mindful pointer of serene procession towards something – provoking, soul-diving, engaging – prompted by the nature-sent, photo-like proposal.

The “You” mentioned in the poem is sensitively attached to nature; but in a quiet association – as if paving the lovers´ way to intimacy – that is set free, no punctuation in lines three and four, to yield the lover to her: “… into the nest hidden within my tossing limbs.” It is a pas de deux from contextual meanings (lines one and two) to figurative meanings (end of line two through three and four). “The nest” strikes a euphemistic chord, which empowers the sentence with sky´s-the-limit interpretations by the reader.

“Blueberry Picking” is play with meanings in cross-contextual insinuations only to be perceived by the mind. Fruit – flavor, colour and look – is the main star in a poem that creates allegories of berry-blue sensuality. The reader climbs – rung by rung – down the poem from “Lake of the Woods, round and placid like the heavy rocks from which the prickly bushes seemed to grow” to “… the sweet berries with my tongue.” Mind-blowing juggling with “I fondled the sweet berries with my tongue” as a prelude to a suggestive “mood.” Situations and characters´ status dribble sensually. The coda modifies the tempo of the poem, its atmosphere.

Kathryn can´t and won´t give up her incursions to nature in “One Woman” for describing/comparing: “Your laughter… geyser filling me with love” or “Exuberant you… deep in life´s river…” She uses metaphors to depict setbacks too: … “welcoming flotsam tossed up in turmoil…,” and optimism again: “glowing like sunrise.” The three lines before the last one (“a surprise hug manifesting joy and rampant passion”) lead to the poem´s essence: “all wrapped up in one woman.” Uncomplicated words, deftly chosen, concise: expressive love and admiration.

“Avatar”  is a proverbial narration of the creative act, its tumultuous process preceding the ultimate phase of artistic conception until the time “to brush across canvas.” It starts explaining somehow the artist-poet strings and the urges/feelings rifling through them, binding them, nurturing them: “her soul tremoring through fingertips / her tears creating rainbows of release.” The image “rainbows of release” confers both painting-related chromatic breadth and cathartic burst to the stanza and the poem.

Stanza two is the vertex pulling in the cosmos and maelstrom of art (“She turns through her nights / courting images / and exaggerations / that revolve / like the moon / through her / seasons and / from the pinnacle of her / rotation / she spirals / like / the dream shattering”), which culminates in “the dream shattering.” This shattering is laden with meanings beyond the notion of shatter that we have, a shattering that creates. Stanza three is the ultimate stage, the artist´s “big bang.” It lays down “across canvas” all of the furnace´s burning embers of the artistic produce.

Read these lines from the poem “Pleasure”: “Your fingers touch the buttons pushing them through each hole creating a V in my white nightgown.” Notably, the poem is homage to the person who has given the poet transcendent moments of pleasure, her companion, her lover: “You pleasure me and more.” The repetition of “and more” as a stylistic device is a key for readers to open divergent doors into their comprehension of the poem: a sensuality bordering eroticism, which is competently molded by the poet. We also feel the defining balance found in the rare gift of companionship, understood as closeness of two beings: the unfailing, necessary presence (“Have done so for half my life and more”).

Finally, “Winter Storm” poses a question to the reader: Why this title? I can only guess. This poem is an erotically wrought piece sublimely elaborated on by the poet. She kneads structure and the way stanzas are set on the page, which contributes to the poem´s mood and atmosphere. It tells of a lover´s subterfuge to win back a woman´s favors (“while he tugs at her memory”). A mind-poking, “blackmailish” foreplay that screens graphic memories: “when motion was joy when their bodies easily skimmed white powder”). The woman “marks distance with care measuring her path” while “he tugs” and she gives “slowly” in.

There is no doubt she has been re-conquered. Now I could explain the title gathering from here and there words, details, under and overtones, and tessitura. One clue is “now she inches slowly downward feeling sleet on her forehead…” Sleet says it all, watery snow, and the fact that it is on her forehead is a sign, for me, of mental “weakening.” A storm is approaching her winter, a storm that spells anticipation, desire, straightforward, concrete come-ons: “She sees his blue eyes his hand reach feels it cup her small breast.” She seems to be awakening from her wintery slumber, defrosted by “his blue eyes.” While the first poem commented here in my review was a breeze and a whisper; this is a latently raging storm of words and love-making. I melted.

Six poems and lots of sparkles in whispers and flames is what I surmised from this tender, sensual author. I am glad her book came to me. Thank you, Kathryn.

 

Miguel Ángel Olivé Iglesias is an Associate Professor at the University of Holguín, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Education, Major in English, and a Master’s Degree in Pedagogical Sciences. He is also Head of the English Language Discipline and a member of the Canadian Studies Department of the Holguín University in Cuba. Miguel Olivé is also a member of the Mexican Association of Language and Literature Professors, VP of the William Shakespeare Studies Center. Professor Olivé is Editor-in-chief of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance (CCLA) magazine The Ambassador, also Assistant Editor of The Envoy newsletter, and CCLA President in Cuba.

Professor Olivé has been teaching for over thirty years and writing reviews, poems and stories in Spanish and in English. He has written and published numerous academic papers in Cuba, Mexico, Spain and Canada.

Hidden Brook Press is about to publish his first solo full-length book of poems, in English and Spanish, Forge of Words (2019). SandCrab books will also publish These Voices Beating in our Hearts: Poems from the Valley (Spanish-English) in ebook format, of which he is Editor, but also features poems of his together with other eleven Holguín poets. His themes are about women, people, life, family, love, nature, and human values.

Available from your local bookseller or online: In A Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry

For more about A Breeze You Whisper, please go to this blog: Three poems: excerpts from A Breeze You Whisper, to purchase visit your local bookseller or online: A Breeze You Whisper (in Canada: A Breeze You Whisper).

River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler: Book Review

This island is far more full of life than I had thought. Animals I cannot name are beginning to make themselves known. I hear twigs snap, and cries filter now and again from woods to sky. I wrap up tighter and try to concentrate on Mama and Mima. I think of that day Mr. Sammy decided he had turned old. His sudden despair and Miss Raison’s drowning weren’t the only life-changing events in the forest hideaway that stormy afternoon. Mima conceived my mother in the middle of all that lightning and rain (186-7).

I often buy used books from volunteers staffing “Friends of the Library” shop at the entrance to Belleville’s library. This is where I found River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler. (Purchases support our public library and often great finds can be made.)

I picked the book up because of the cover – a photograph that I might have been smitten to take – an egret in long, marshy grasses. The narrative, which identifies as fiction, is dedicated to two women who seem very much like two characters in the story. However, the blurb on the dust jacket almost put me off – romance (the romantic, not the historic variety). Nevertheless, I was drawn in.

Fowler’s book reminds me a little of Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (2018). What the two books share is a boat on a river, water that hides mysteries and danger, and consciousness more surreal than real. Johnson’s story is far more complex and more beautifully executed…and much more surreal and daring. But Fowler’s story was published 24 years earlier. Johnson’s story centres on the intricate relations of a mother and daughter; Fowler’s focuses on a woman’s memories of her mother, grandmother and grandfather who tell their own stories. To my mind, the intervention of Carlos and a mummified baby spoil what might have been a much more interesting tale.

River of Hidden Dreams fought with me (or I with it). I threatened to toss it aside. Then I turned the page again. The orneriness of the grandmother and granddaughter parallel became a bit too much…but then I continued reading. The handsome, perfect, prince-charming Carlos is polar-opposite of his miserable, mean Mamacita/Saidie. Perhaps someone told the author, “you’d better include a love object and sex.” Still, the pages kept turning.

What works: Mr. Sammy, the trawler, the river, the Everglades, and the ancestors speaking their own stories for the eerie, jarring, sensuous impact. Fowler’s descriptions held me enchanted. I slipped into her river-world where time became untethered. The story may have happened last century or last year; it doesn’t matter. I felt its immediacy, its reality in a surreal kind of way.

River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler has earned my toughest review. Now that it’s written, I’ve checked what others have said…and everyone loved everything about it. Now you might want to read the novel and make up your own mind. Do let me know…please.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: River of Hidden Dreams

(The hardcover is listed for Cdn $248.72 – you may want to visit your library to borrow a copy.)

The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson: Book Review

I find a kind of hope here, in this / homelessness, in this place / where no one knows me – / where I’ll be gone, like some / over-wintering bird, / before they even notice. (Beginning to Green)

The poet searches: for his shadow-self, for grief and guilt, and for life and meaning. In The Wrecking Light, Robin Robertson moves into the past, sheds light onto the present, and shape-shifts between reality and the surreal.

In the first section, Silvered Water, the first poem, “Album,” sets a tone that echoes throughout the collection. It begins:

I am almost never there, in these
old photographs: a hand
or shoulder, out of focus; a figure
in the background,
stepping from the frame.

(…)

A ghost is there; the ghost gets up to go.

The Wrecking Light is full of memories that include memories of others: the girl / with the hare lip / down by Clachan Bridge (“By Clachan Bridge”). And the collection ends with the personal memory of “Hammersmith Winter” when through the drawn curtain / shines the snowlight I remember as a boy, / sitting up at the window watching it fall. Mixed with memories is a sense of grieving, as in “Fall From Grace:”

My life a mix of dull disgraces
and watery acclaim, my daughters know
I cannot look into their clear faces;
what shines back at me is shame.

The theme continues. In “Tinsel,” in the woods: If you’re very quiet, you might pick up loss: or rather / the thin noise that losing makes – perdition. / If you’re absolutely silent. And with loss comes leaving. The very next poem, “Leaving St. Kilda,” takes us on a sea journey brimming with geographic details and clear images cut clean by departure. In this geographical catalogue: sea rhythm; progression.

But don’t get the wrong idea, these poems are neither nostalgic nor maudlin. In the skillful hands of this visionary, we are taken on a raucous ride with unexpected twists and turns.

In the second section called Broken Water, the first poem’s horror and the brutal honesty of rough island life and penance is laid bare. In “Law of the Island” Robertson paints a vivid description of island punishment and the casualness of its deployment. In this section, he gives us a back-and-forth of short poems with punch and longer, exploratory ones where he writes after Ovid, Neruda, Baudelaire, and myth to understand humanity’s weaknesses. Here, “Grave Goods,” is beyond surreal; it enters magic.

In the third section, Unspoken Water, the woods and forests of childhood again dominate. In “The Wood of Lost Things,” the vision is clearer and in its clarity, more haunting. Robertson writes: I have found the place I wasn’t meant to find (…)

Hung on a silver birch, my school cap
and satchel; next to them, the docken suit,
and next to that, pinned to a branch,
my lost comforter –
a piece of blanket worn to the size of my hand.

 You can see how he leads us. Like Narcissus he sees a face I seem to know. But unlike Narcissus, he isn’t struck by his beauty. Of course not. But he does give us a resolution (of sorts).

In The Wrecking Light, there is much of the sea, of woods, of love and loss, of searching. I return to the final poem, “Hammersmith Winter,” and the poet’s final plea: Look at the snow, / I said, to whoever might be near, I’m cold, / would you hold me. Hold me. Let me go.

Robin Robertson has written an intense, lyrical collection with movement as through dreams bordering on nightmare (I dare not use the word haunting again, although that is the effect his writing creates). This is Robertson’s forth book of poetry; I recommend you enter his world.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Wrecking Light

Bone Antler Stone by Tim Miller: Book Review

In every real way, the ring was placed here / the ring of now pock-marked, planetary stone (…) but the landscape was first, the stones only our / attempt at echo and veneration. (The Ring of Brodgar)

Tim Miller collapses 30,000 years of archaeology into a poetry collection that feels the thrill of immediate experience. He stirs a bit of magic, weaving it into the facts of what we know from long-past history.

In “Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira” (France and Spain, 35,000 – 12,000 BC), Miller writes: Now we come to paint with light and fire. In this seven-part poem, we go beyond the images and enter the process of painting them:

A bison made with his hands, white hands dipped in red
And palms slapped on cold rock again and again,
Smacked hands turned or righted or angles
And his exhausted step back to see
The animal made only of red palms and rock,
Red like bison’s blood, stone vitality,
His awe at a heartbeat behind the wall,
And his hands red as a midwife’s.

The poet does not stand back, merely to look in wonder and awe, although the mystery inherent in that is present. He manages intimacy and time dissolves.

Lines jump off the page, lines like The sun sets into the sea and is doused / and rises with the sound of reborn flame / rolling into another red morning. The title, “The Sun Sets into the Sea” is incantatory, hypnotic. Doing the work of a chant, it carries us to the sea and the sun, which so many peoples worshipped.

The landscape, too, is revealed as it reveals burials of the long dead. In “Long Barrows,” graves become humps…in the landscape, / small rises like murmurs. The collapsing of then and now runs throughout the collection as it does in:

Horses and Cows on Orkney

Horses curled in the flaming spiral of sleep,
The huge immensity of their bodies
Belied by the blankets they wear, or the
Tight scroll they twist themselves into on the ground,
A
n enormity suddenly made small
Or at least passive, compact, the coiled braid
Of body closer to tree or landscape,
The tilted, chiseled head nearer to stone
Or to steel or something pulled from the fire,
Some monument to just how this place works,
That you do not escape the wind, but dream in it.

And this would not be a “prehistory” collection if the goddesses were not brought forth. “Female Figurines” begins with the urgency of poetic catalogue, an incantation:

Hum the words with me and you might understand:
Mammoth ivory, hematite, limestone,
Black jet, soapstone, antler and fired clay –
All of these become our bodies because
Our bodies are the place of becoming.

Tim Miller stirs the imagination. His narrative poems in Bone Antler Stone breathe life into the archeological past of Europe. Now my heart yearns for poetic translation of “New World” prehistory.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Bone Antler Stone

A personal note:
Reading “Female Figurines” (Bone Antler Stone), I walked over to a display table in my sitting area and picked up a cast replica of the Goddess of Willendorf, a gift of my professor of Art and Archeology. In that course, Professor Leonard Kroon insisted we experience art. I did two things: first, I visited the petroglyph site at Rice Lake, lay on the shamanic rock and listened to the earth gurgling through a slanted crack (out of that experience came a poem, “Migration,” which is included in A Breeze You Whisper) and I carved a hawk from a block of soapstone. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the red-tailed hawk would become a motif in later poems. That aside, I cradled the Willendorf figure – both tiny as my palm and monumental – and felt magic through the rotund Lilliputian goddess before returning to Miller’s poems.

For more about my writing, please see “About”

Mechanics of a Gaze by Branka Petrovic; poetry review and reading/writing tips

Inside his studio, a woman awaits // her turn to be myth

In Mechanics of a Gaze, Branka Petrovic strips the paintings of Gustav Klimt—layer by layer—until only the male gaze is left. Petrovic’s interpretation of the man and his work is not flattering. The poems are irreverent, provocative, skillful and mature.

The structure of the book leads us from insightful—although sometimes devastating profiles—and ekphrastic poems to historical notes and interpretations by others. In the first section (“His Women”), we meet a selection of the women who were model, muse and sexual object. The poems unmask the erotic within Klimt’s studio, sometimes blatantly and sometimes more suggestively.

Whatever’s semi about this nude, it’s not
the way we enter the sketch,
her swift dialogue of the illicit.

Slipped between the poems are excerpts from postcards sent by Klimt to Emilie Flӧge over their long relationship. They continue throughout, presaging the final section and providing an insight into the Klimt-Flӧge relationship and his character.

Next, the focus is on Emilie Flӧge, the woman who was Klimt’s friend, sometimes lover, and lifelong companion. In a poem called “Gustav & Emilie, Petrovic creates a scene (perhaps from a photo taken at her family cottage at Lake Attersee) but then imagines:

If he were to paint you right now,
the vertical lines of your dress
would leak jonquil, mutate

into a metallic-gold,

backdrop; osmanthus sprouting

from your hands….

…Your air,

a brooding saint.

Petrovic at once captures the essence of Klimt’s art and sexual fecundity as evidenced in “osmanthus.” In another poem, she does this with “Calder,” alluding to movement. Petrovic demonstrates a close reading of both the paintings/drawings and the characters that inhabit (and those who created) them. And in five words defines Flӧge and the relationship.

The third section places the gaze on Adele Bloch-Bauer. (You may recall the 2006 movie “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, which takes the point-of-view of Maria Altmann who reclaims the painting of her aunt from the Austrian establishment.)  In one poem, Petrovic expresses the essence of Adele and Klimt as “a Wittgenstein riddle.”

In the fourth section, “Mankind Drifting,” the perspective broadens to include Vienna and the Secessionists’ art (late 19th through early 20th centuries). The Secessionists led the way from traditional-to-modern art in Vienna. The movement turned conservative values on their head, and Gustav Klimt was in the vanguard.  In this section, Petrovic switches focus from Klimt’s portraits to his controversial work for the University of Vienna’s ceilings: Philosophy; Medicine; and Jurisprudence. It is also here that Petrovic returns to Egon Shiele, provocative protégé (“Disabled Sex” appears in the first section).

The final part, “Catalogue Raisonné,” is where we come to found poems and collages, information gleaned from sources such as Wikipedia and the Internet to reviews and the press from The New York Times to The Montreal Gazette. Petrovic’s innovative structuring of the collection leads readers from her subject—the sexualized gaze—of artist and model to the political subject of Nazi looting. With this innovation, Petrovic pushes the convention of most poetry collections.

Branka Petrovic’s debut collection reinvigorates Gustav Klimt and Secessionists’ art. You will never look at the stale gold and mosaic looking greeting cards of Klimt the same. I find Mechanics of a Gaze as invigorating as was the poetry of Sylvia Plath in the 1960s. My guess is that we’ll be hearing more from Branka Petrovic.

 

Tips for Writers

  1. Relevancy: read the poems as a whole, thinking about their subject and relevancy (see Good News for Poets and Readers). As a poet, what role does relevancy to your readers play in your writing? Is relevancy important?
  2. Read each poem for its ekphrastic insight, asking yourself if Petrovic captures the essence of the art. Does the poem work as a poem?
  3. In 2017, I reviewed The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. Like “Peter Schjeldahl on Gustav Klimt Part 1” and “…Part II” in Mechanics of a Gaze, I have changed my mind somewhat. In that review, I ignored sexual politics and the inherent power of the “gaze.” But after reading The Mechanics of a Gaze, and having witnessed the revelations of the last couple of years, I’ve reread the more sympathetic Kiss. It is Hickey’s fictionalized story of Klimt, written entirely from the point-of-view of Emilie Flӧge. Hickey seeks to get under the skin and into the heart of a woman of the last century. Yet it is all there: the sexualized gaze and acts. Bring your consciousness to Petrovic’s collection. Is Mechanics of a Gaze a feminist collection? If so, does “the message” inform or detract from the work as art?
  4. The Secessionists rejected the orthodox conventions of late 19th-early 20th century Vienna. Their art was rejected by traditional art galleries, so they established their own, a movement toward modernity. Should it be judged/reinterpreted against today’s standards or accepted within its place in history?

 

Available through your local bookstore or online: Mechanics of a Gaze

Also, please see blog 14 The Painted Kiss (2005): The Painted Kiss

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Panicle, poems by Gillian Sze, book review and writing tips

This is how the beginning sounds: an inkstick grinding against stone,
a dark circling like ancient gears. The water blackens from soot;
we paint with the burnt ashes of pine trees.

In “Calligraphy,” the first poem in Panicle by Gillian Sze, we are led into the art of writing which begins: “even before the brush touches the paper.” Sounds and the act of writing—of listening, witnessing, experiencing, reaching essence at the core—permeate Panicle. This is a collection about poetry itself.

In a prose poem, “Sound No2,” she writes:

There are things I want to show you, like the empty pause that encircles desire. Or how Klimt knew that a woman bends her neck that far for a kiss only if she really wants it. I want to show you how quiet it gets when you’re in the company of someone who no longer loves you.

Sze pushes beyond sound and sight, beyond even behavior, in order to explain poetry, as she does in “Bona Fide: or, Setting the Seine on Fire.” She begins by drawing us into “impressionist modes” (do you see the shimmering light?) and note how black differs in Paris where “even the chestnut trees never cast black shadows.” This thrusting of opposites applies to ideas about poetry as much as it does to the words within a poem. After creating the Parisian scene, she notes:

A modernist tells me
he’s searching for genuine tones
in poetry
something authentic, not fugitive…
Something, he repeats, in good faith.

And I tell him
I’m search for natural light.

She brings us back to experience and away from the theoretical voice of the critic.

In “Aubade,” Gillian Sze introduces a hospital room in which she sees “A raised cup / and behind my eyes / a rush of wings;” perhaps a reference to the Eucharist before she turns to nature as “each leaf lifts an eyebrow / and regards the day,” returning us to hope and light. (“Aubade translates from French roughly as auba=dawn + albus=light.) Her play on allusion and sound throughout the collection pares the subject down to its essence.

It seems to me that Sze breaks rules with “Staging Paris: Tableaux Vivants,” ten scenes that she outlines for us, each creating a situation, unresolved. She plays with light and sound. She leaves it to readers to resolve each situation.

My favourite section is the long poem that concludes the collection: “III Guillemets,” although she does not use the chevrons ‹ and › (single or double) in the poem. What is included are sketches by Jessica Hiemstra (please see the previous blog: Apologetic for Joy for Hiemstra-van der Horst’s poetry). The poem is a creative interpretation of Pouvoir du noir by Roland Giguère in which is contrasts black and white and much more in a clear, accessible way. I recommend Panicle for the clarity, contrasts, sound, and skill of Gillian Sze’s poems.

For the writers among us:

  1. Think about the place of sound in your poems;
  2. Think about creating tension through opposites;
  3. Think about leaving the door open for interpretation, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions, as Gillian Sze does in the “Tableaux.”

Available through your local bookstore or online: Panicle

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Everything Under by Daisy Johnson Book Review and Writing Tips

The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling….

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson is the story of a daughter, mother, and digging into memory:

If I really cared about you I would put you in a home for your own good. Floral curtains, meals at the same time every day, others of your kind. Old people are a species all of their own. If I really still loved you I would have left you where you were, not carted you here, where the days are so short they are barely worth talking about and where we endlessly, excavate, exhume what should remain buried.

It is the story of words: their creation, meaning, and power:

Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them. It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot. We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother. We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does. We have a whole language of our own.

And it is a story about fear: naming it, running from it:

One night I wake and you are screaming and screaming. I skid along the corridor, knock you door open, put on the light.

The Bonak is here, you say, and for a moment—because it is night and I am only just awake—I feel a rise of sickening panic.

Johnson’s story reverberates from the present to the past and it balloons into more than a mother’s dementia and a daughter’s search to find meaning behind the words, truth.

Some mornings I am cold with certainty that only some ancient punishment will do, a stoning or a blinding, leaving you out for the wolves. You tell me that you didn’t know and we grow silent and wonder if either of us really believes that. Again and again I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds.

Truth is elusive, stretching to include a run-away youth: Margo/Marcus. And it becomes tangled like the weeds beneath the boat, knotted into words woven into the Oedipus myth.

Daisy Johnson has created an original page-turning story that was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2018. Fall into Everything Under and let her laden words carry you like the river’s current.

Reading as a writer:

  1. Gretel, the daughter-narrator, is a lexicographer. Pay attention to the role words play in the story and why Johnson made her a word person. As you read, also consider the naming of people and objects in Johnson’s story. What is the importance of Gretel’s career choice and how does it impact or layer the story? In your writing, what do character’s names bring to your stories? What do their roles contribute?
  2. Can you read “Gretel” without thinking of the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel? What does this allusion bring to Everything Under? Gretel is as lost in her own way as her mother is lost in dementia. Another literary reference is made to the Oedipus myth. Think about your own literary references and ask yourself if they are integral to your story, layering it and deepening the meaning, or if they are superficial and ostentatious.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Everything Under