Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: Killing Kanoko, by Hiromi Ito (translated by Jeffrey Angles); Poison Sonnets, by Joseph Heithaus; The Descent of Alette, by Alice Notley; Skin Horse, by Olivia Cronk

I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book (plus, I know very few of you Not Your Mama readers out there are poetry people anyway).  So every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been reading lately.  I've actually read way more than these four books the last two months, but most of them made so little impression on me that I don't even feel the need to hate on them in this space.  They weren't good or bad; they just exist and I had to read them for class.  So these four books are ones that actually made an impression, for good or bad.

Killing Kanoko: My workshop professor assigned us this book at the last minute because Ito was coming to campus to read with her translator.  I am so glad she assigned it because I loved Killing Kanoko.  Ito is a Japanese quasi-feminist poet who writes about motherhood and language and the human body in grotesque and startling ways.  The title of this book even comes from a poem about the fantasy of killing her infant daughter.  Most of these are older poems that are just now getting translated in the States by Jeffrey Angles, who does a great job.  These poems are weird, but they're also fun and thought-provoking.  And Ito and Angles make a great reading team.  That was one of the best readings I've been to in a while.  Side Note:  This book was published by my workshop prof and her husband (who I will have for workshop next semester), who run a press called Action.  They put out really lovely-looking books, and this one, with its bright pink cover, is just one example of why small presses put out the prettiest poetry books. 

Poison Sonnets:  There is no way I can fairly review this book.  Not only is it by my favorite undergrad professor (and the person that turned me toward poery in the first place), but I also get a shout-out in the acknowledgements!  So I will just briefly mention that this is a lovely book and one that Heithaus worked his ass off to put together.  It finds what is both beautiful and terrifying about nature, meaning both the natural world and human nature.  There's poems about death and life, and Heithaus never shies away from big ideas in his work.  A joy to finally read after having seen these poems in so many different forms over the years. 

The Descent of Alette:  This is one of those "big-deal" poetry books that everyone on my campus has somehow read and digested.  That being said, I kind of hated it.  Notley did a reading on campus last semester (she's a kind of god for my workshop prof), and she didn't make a great impression.  She is a VIP in the contemporary poetry world, and she's a decent reader, but she has that weird dreamy elitism that only poets seem capable of possessing.  So much so that she's become something of an in-joke among some of us Notre Dame MFAers.  My workshop prof assigned this book over our spring break, and none of us seem overly excited about it.  My poet friend Drew and I texted our displeasure at having to read it just yesterday.  I finished Alette right away so I could read more fun stuff the rest of break, which was a wise choice.  Alette is an allegorical epic in which the title character goes down into a kind of hell-like space where people are stuck riding subways all day.  A tyrant rules over them all and keeps them from going up in the light, and at the end, Alette must fight the tyrant.  The book relies heavily on second-wave feminism (my least favorite kind of feminism) and a lot of tired cliches of oppression.  This book started out being interesting and somewhat enjoyable, but eventually I began to resent the way it clobbered me over the head with a dark hammer.  Sorry, Alice Notley.  I don't think we can be friends.

Skin Horse:  I'm a big believer that the conditions under which you read a book greatly affect your enjoyment of said book.  Olivia Cronk's Skin Horse (another Action book, and given to me by my professor because she thought it held a connection with my own work) is a great example of this.  I had actually started Skin Horse a couple weeks ago and just couldn't get past the first few pages.  Then I went back to my hometown for a couple days and started the book over again on my last night there.  Suddenly, I couldn't keep my eyes away from the broken language and I finished it in a big rush that night.  It's very strange and eerie, with erasures that add to a sense of forboding and brushed-aside terror.  I'm not exactly sure I can pick out the family and place narrative of the book, but I don't care.  After having spent a couple days in the weirdness that is Walkerton, Indiana, hearing creepy family stories, I suddenly "got" Cronk's sun-seared visions of parking lots and sketchy people on the edges of the speaker's vision.  I knew I'd like this book as soon as I hit the phrase "trees typewritering."  Skin Horse is not a book for everyone, but it's a book for me.  I'm so glad my prof forced it into my hands.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How to Be/Not to Be Funny

Book Reviewed: You're Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations, by Michael Ian Black

If there is one show I can accidentally end up watching all day long, it's VH1's I Love the... specials.  I can literally sit in one spot and not get up for hours if I Love the 80s is on.  Watching talking heads joke about the ridiculous aspects of a decade's pop culture is like gravy for me.  After all, aren't I basically starring in my very own version of I Love the 2010s in my daily life?  Hmm, it's possible I have admitted too much here...

Anyway, one of the best things about those shows was Michael Ian Black, who is also famous for being a part of the beloved comedy act, Stella.  Also, he got to bang a young Bradley Cooper in Wet Hot American Summer, for which he will always be famous in my mind.  Michael Ian Black is very funny.  He's capable of a self-obsessed irony that is both distburbing and charming in equal measure.  I especially love him in the podcast Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, which he does with Tom Cavanaugh, his co-star on Ed.  When I heard that Black had a new book out, I was fairly interested and put a hold on it at my local library.  But when I read the great reviews the book was getting, I knew I had to drop everything else I was reading so I could get to it right away.

You're Not Doing It Right is a surprising book, and I mean that in all the best ways.  It's funny, obviously, but it's also quite dark.  Black is incredibly honest here, telling stories that often show him in a bad light.  And yet, the book never feels too bleak, even when Black is talking about his marriage problems or the way he sometimes resents his children.  There's a perfect balance here of pathos and humor, making Black seem like the kind of person we might actually meet out in the real world, standing in line at the grocery store.  He only casually mentions his career once or twice, and he never mentions any specific projects he's worked on, which only added to how realistic this book felt.  This is not a book about a middle-aged comedian.  This is a book about a middle-aged man with a life that never quite feels like his. 

Along with being a brutally honest collection of essays, You're Not Doing It Right also happens to be a very breezy read.  Black has a very light writing touch, one that I really appreciated it.  I knocked this book out in a matter of days with very little effort.  It's the sign of a good writer when he can make you care enough to stick with him despite the piles of homework laid out right in front of you.  Not that I ignored any homework or anything to finish this book....Okay, I did.  And it was worth it.