Aug 13, 2014

Sri Upadhyay Reviews Whip & Spur by Iver Arnegard

Whip & Spur
Iver Arnegard
Gold Line Press, 2014

ISBN: 9781938900099

"Already in that darkness": A Journey With Personal Demons

Iver Arnegard manages to lure a reader from the first two words: whip and spur, the namesake images of his work. From the title itself Arnegard’s writing does not waffle. It is consistent - in both the voices of its characters and the narrative - simultaneously transparent and sharp. Like the nominal “whip” and “spur” there is an immediate core of pain and control that is evident behind the writing and within the characters. Arnegard expertly explores the fallacy of control, the illusion that inspires one to become most afraid of that which they cannot police. The untamed wilderness Arnegard uses as his backdrop and the cruelty and isolation he presents through starkly-straightforward intimacy in his characters only serves to further unite his thematic elements. The reader feels the opposing forces of each narrative push and pull in an ultimate struggle between oneself and the individual will to persevere and survive. Often the ties that bind characters in Arnegard’s pieces, and the forces they wish to escape, are exactly what defines them and is so deeply rooted.

In “Ice Fishing” it becomes apparent that which the narrator wishes to escape is exactly what his identity is rooted in: his memories. The bodies of other characters are nameless, like the fish bones that weave throughout the piece. The names disappear and are gone until all that remains of the world Arnegard creates is that of universal appeal and importance: the snow and the sun, i.e. the earth itself. Appropriately, Arnegard begins with the theme of orienting, and directional imagery abounds in the first piece itself:

On a frozen lake a man is fishing. The sun – no warmer than a star – hangs over the spruce. Winter in Montana. The Pintlar Mountains rise to the east. Heavy timber blankets the foothills but only reaches halfway up the range. Those peaks are too harsh most of the year for anything but snow. To the west, where he came from, there are no mountains, just dense woods. After the road ended it was another four miles on foot. His snowshoes made the only tracks.

What is most remarkable about “Ice Fishing” is that the readers do not realize where they have been taken until they feel that cold mountain snap, breathe in the thin air, and find themselves asking – out loud, in my case – “is ‘she’ the ice or the sun?” I waited for the answer to come to me. In that moment Arnegard’s voice was silent – as though it winked from a different plane, reminding the reader of his or her journey to find answers in the wilderness like the characters try to find meaning through their dialogue with nature and with themselves, clinging to that lifeline as they decide which parts to keep and which weights to let go.

In “Recluse” from which the token line “whip and spur” is taken for the title, some of the most poignant images occur, leaving the readers with the tine of metal in their mouths as though they were the horse experiencing the pain of the bridle and bit. The woman of the story battles the memory of an abusive love and the demons of her past manifest as the enemies of her present: the parched land, dying cattle, and the lurking rattlesnake are always waiting, and always watching, in the final moment of confrontation Arnegard sets the final palpable scene:

Despite the wind tearing through kindling, I hear the shake of his rattle calling from under that log. In my mind, I am already in that darkness with him, inches from his hissing tongue . . . I wrap my hands around that top log and carefully move it to the side. As I squeeze my eyes shut, the rattle grows louder. Leaning above the opening, I push my sleeves back and reach my trembling hands down into the darkness.

In “Seventeen Fences,” I found the very first stanza to be so moving that I needed to read it three more times before proceeding. Lines such as “If you have an old map, you might still find Farland, North Dakota” set the stage of a soft story, as if you are seeing the landscape through the condensation of a whisky glass – muted and warm and the amber glow of summer’s late evening light that is beautiful, if a bit melancholy. Arnegard continues with more beautiful simple language: “and if you care to stop and untangle the years, you’ll find the last great boom of when the price of wheat was up, cattle prices up, even water in the rain gauge up,” before concluding: “sometime this winter an abandoned house in town will buckle, lurch to the side, and lean closer to the ground.” Arnegard continues strongly through the poem, with gems like the elegiac reflection of a mother’s passing: “One night her eyes dulled as dusk pulled the light from that room. The sun sank, purpled the western sky and sometime before dawn I dreamt a swarm of red-winged blackbirds rose from the fields. Eclipsed the stars and the moon.” Other characters come to play and make reappearances through the entire book and Arnegard describes them equally as lovingly, like the waitress, another of my favorites: “Coffee breaks she’d write poetry on the back of used guest check, her love for me under a smudge of ketchup, on the other side of someone’s eggs over easy, side of bacon and toast.”

Lest readers get too comfortable with the pastoral tone of “Seventeen Fences,” Arnegard reminds us with images of the very real darkness and danger, the forest just on the outskirts - of the town and our consciousness - with neat little lines tucked into the stanzas. For example, the first and final lines: “Up here summer swings open on hinges and a bear steps out, dazed, rubbing winter eyes when a cloud of sparrows swims overhead, sucked up into the sun,” and: “The last thing summer will see through its faded window is the shadow of a moose beneath a ribbon of green light,” respectively.

In stanza fifteen, readers get another glimpse of the continual contrast between man and his habitat, both victims of love and loss, with the line: “As my tractor makes furrows, hawks circle overhead, waiting for me to scare out a field mouse or a jackrabbit.” And the final paragraph of stanza sixteen: “My father fell in the north field, hands dirty, heart tight. I’ll move granite for the rest of my days and die, maybe the same way, a thousand stones beneath me, creeping toward the surface.” Finally the last two sentences of stanza seventeen suggest a retreat in the anger that pulses through some other passages in Whip & Spur, there is the slightest sigh, and then: “I walk over to look at the pulpit. When I tap it with my boot, a half-dozen prayers startle up from behind and flap into the light.”

In “What Rises” Arnegard completes the thematic journey full circle to the individual facing the wisdom of wilderness (depicted in “Ice Fishing”) and having the starkest of vital dialogues: with one’s deepest, truest self – the type of conversation many should have, but few ever will, and even fewer will in such committed poetic fashion:

Staring north, beyond Montana. So much potential. Never enough time.
. …What rises to the surface:
. …Memories. I have eight decades of them:
. …Years. Crawling by.

One can taste the acrid grit of memories and years, and that swallowing sense of recollection – the way it grows deeper and darker through reliving a memory. Arnegard understands that though the past might be bitter it is still a wholly-present part of the self, and one that must continually be acknowledged as the scale by which to measure the future.

For me, “Seventeen Fences” is most strongly the voice that is conveyed, and the poem is something special indeed. Human nature loves the incongruity of surprise as though it is a gift just for them alone, and all their own. Arnegard certainly delivers, and I am no exception in feeling this joy and delight, and I wonder then, if Whip & Spur is an exercise in control and drive for purpose, not power as the stories depict – and if it was, it was so finely executed.

Sri Upadhyay lives in New York and is a graduate student earning her PhD in Cognitive Psychology. She loves literature, language, and researches how we read and process meaning in text. Sri has been published most recently in Luna Negra, Alt Lit Press, Boston Poetry Magazine, Prosaic Magazine, Ghost House Review, and Flyover Country Review.

Jul 10, 2014

Dante Di Stefano Reviews Cynthia Marie Hoffman's Her Human Costume

Her Human Costume
Cynthia Marie Hoffman
Gold Line Press, 2014

ISBN: 9781938900105

A Filament of Smoke, Wandering

The twenty-six interweaving prose poems in Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s chapbook Her Human Costume glide like a skater pirouetting on black ice. The poems are written with an understated elegance: hushed, precise, and passionate. Hoffmann explores what it means to be a bundle of bones and sinews, memory and forgetting, draped in this, our human costume. From the vantage point of a new mother, the poems honor four generations of women and seek to unravel (and recouple) the countless silken ties of affection that connect sisters, mothers, daughters, and grandmothers. A mother singing the alphabet to her newborn questions how the needlework of language ushers us into the world and undoes us. A grandmother with dementia searches her walls for the levers that will initiate night. A sister recovering from surgery becomes a “weary animal…limping from the brambles,” who might disappear as “delicate wildlife…into the thick forest.” Hoffman invokes the fragility of such threshold moments, and summons the bravery that allows one to endure.

For Hoffman, the present is a place freighted with vanishings. The final poem in the collection, “There is no ghost in this house,” reads:
There is no ghost in this house. It is still a new house. No one has died here. People rarely die in their houses anymore, or are born in them. Yet the hall that leads to the stairway has its shimmerings, the stair its spontaneous crack. Three times in darkness I pass through to sit in the chair with the baby. She is the most alive thing in the house, her spirit most freshly settled in its body. The sound of the highway brushes against the window, and her heart is a plum springing on its stem. A warm sweet scent. If the ghost waits for me to cross from door to door, it surely touches me. If it breathes, it breathes in deep.
What haunts here is the precarious dance of the plum on its stem, the inevitability that the daughter will enter into the world outside this new house, where big winds blow, hearts break, and people age and die. However, “a warm sweet scent” suffuses this sorrow. Love buoys this mother and child, moors them to each other in this instant of shimmering. As the poet notes of her own mother in an earlier poem, a “mother’s imperfect selfless bones are made of helping.” All memory, Hoffman’s chapbook suggests, coheres around such imperfect selfless bones. The poem “I would say it is an ordinary day,” ends: “This is a memory of today. A filament of smoke wandering. A delicate, unraveling pink thread.” Bone provides the scaffold that holds up skin. Memory, the marrow that fleshes these poems.

Her Human Costume does what all good prose poetry should: it apprehends the ordinary in all of its unraveling strangeness. The poet Liz Rosenberg has noted:

It is an odd but true fact that a horizontal window lets in more light than a vertical window of the same square footage. Given this, it is even odder that we humans insist upon living such vertical lives, in vertical buildings, with vertical windows and views. 
Most verse—especially contemporary free verse—is also constructed along vertical lines. I mean this not only in the literal way, but also in the metaphorical sense of higher meanings. It is as if we are always looking up to something instead of at it.

Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s prose poetry avoids thinking vertically and favors horizontal truths; it privileges the glow of a streetlight let into a nursery from a bay window, rather than the luminary quality of the moon shining through a skylight. Hoffman transforms the fears, frailties, and loneliness that are the accoutrements of our human costumes. She makes of these motley scraps a humble outfit, stitched as artfully as the finest regalia. Hoffman says, “until we speak, we are merely creatures,” but when we enter into language we become a filament of smoke wandering.

Dante Di Stefano's poetry and essays have appeared recently, or are forthcoming, in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Southern California Review, and elsewhere. He was the winner of the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, the Phyllis Smart-Young Prize in Poetry, and an Academy of American Poets College Prize. He currently serves as a poetry editor for Harpur Palate and he was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Jun 26, 2014

Local Reading with Tom Bouman and Dante DiStefano

Local authors Tom Bouman and Dante DiStefano are set to read at RiverRead Books on July 8th at 6:30 pm.

Tom Bouman is a local author who grew up in Binghamton and Brackney, Pennsylvania. Dry Bones in the Valley (W.W. Norton, 2014) is a rural noir set in a fictionalized Northeastern Pennsylvania town.

Walter Benjamin said that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. Tom Bouman’s novel dissolves the genre of rural noir. The book is an intensely lyrical exploration of loss and a requiem for the changing landscape of Susquehanna county. It is an anti-fracking novel, a straight-up thriller, and a delicately wrought character study, all at once.

It is the finest contemporary novel that we’ve read in years and it’s poised to be the biggest book to come out of this area ever. Already, the novel has been put on must-read lists by Oprah and the ALA. It’s received praise from such crime fiction heavyweights as Donald Ray Pollack, Wiley Cash, and James Sallis.

You can visit Bouman's page here, his Norton page here, and his Amazon page here.

We also look forward to hearing Dante DiStefano, one of our wonderful poetry editors, share from his work!

Dante Di Stefano is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing at Binghamton University. His poetry and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Writer's Chronicle, Shenandoah, The Southern California Review, Brilliant Corners, The Hollins Critic, Bayou Magazine, The Grove Review, Gris-Gris, and elsewhere. He has won the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and the Academy of American Poets College Prize. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Contemporary poets whose work he admires include: Ruth Stone, Marie Howe, Jason Shinder, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Terrance Hayes.

We look forward to seeing you all at this event! 

July 8 at 6:30 pm
RiverRead Books
5 Court St, Binghamton, NY 13901
(607) 217-7292

May 12, 2014

Tom Griffen Reviews David St. John's The Auroras

The Auroras
David St. John
HarperCollins, 2012

ISBN: 0062088483

Still Wet With Light

            The first word of the first poem in David St. John’s book The Auroras is “opaque.” Readers might find this to be quite fitting for the weaving triptych in which St. John explores theme and form. His elimination of punctuation, capitalization of the first letter of each line, use of mid-line extended spacing, and ampersands in place of and all tie the otherwise unrelated chapters together. The fact that The Auroras is a triptych in the first place hints to a religious layering, even though the format itself is far more commercial and practical than it once was. Before even reading the poems, the book transforms into a bit of a mystery. Whats to come? What should be expected? Arguably, this is one of the driving forces pushing the reader directly into The Auroras wet light.
            Each of the three chapters could easily be books of their own. The first one titled Gypsy Davy is a meandering poetic memoir that refrains from ever becoming too sentimental. Though readers are privileged to witness St. Johns travel exploits from afar, he manages to make the scenes inclusive, thus giving readers a stake in the poems. The journey, as it were, might be St. Johns way of further dedicating his book to his wife Anna Journey. He extends the metaphor through historical references of age, and imagery alluding to travel and adventure. In Aurora of the New Mind, St. John writes, Still I look a lot like Scott Fitzgerald tonight with my tall / Tumbler of meander & bourbon & mint just clacking my ice. Gypsy Davys Flute of Rain hints to King Arthur being presented his sword, Excalibur, Id filled the final page of my diary / A lovely thing given to me by The Lady of the Lake / & bound in a cover of tooled leather.  In Aurora of the Lost Dulcimer, St. John states that, I was just like Ulysses but better dressed. The poet shares his epic adventures, and rather than make them sound romantic, he uses images to maintain an honest and sullen tone. Cerebrus, a three-headed hound of hell, is mentioned in Schopenhauers Dog Collar. Schopenhauer believed that the world is in a constant state of unhappiness driven by continually dissatisfied people. This philosophy loads the poem. But St. John lets readers know that his own outlook isnt so bleak, writing in Pythagorean Perfume, that, Even if your boat is carved of rancid meat / & your sails are frozen with ice dont despair. Seems readers are in good hands on this journey.
            The second chapter, In the High Country, is the longest section and contains eighteen free-verse, non-rhyming couplets and five quatrains. The two-line stanzas give sharper focus to the poem, providing a pause between St. Johns doses of dense imagery. In this chapter, his description of place and time is braided with a meditative introspection about aging. The title poems first line states, Some days I am happy to be no one, and then proceeds to point out the connectivity of all things. Such revelations continue in From a Bridge, when the poet reflects on a womans suicide, Twisted violently toward the storm-struck sky / There are some things we know before we know. These bits of wisdom suggest that the poet is absorbing his own maturity while allowing the world to happen as it must completely out of his control. There seems to be a relief that comes with this acceptance. Without Mercy, the Rains Continued, is a brief study of the poets younger, less-rehearsed self. The naturalness of rain becomes a metaphor for something uncontrollable. The beautiful question left at the end of the poem is one readers may find haunting. Can we change? Do we change? Does this metaphorical rain still exist even after weve (supposedly) grown up and moved beyond it? St. John suggests that we just get used to being wet.  

                                    & as I listened I knew something
                                    Had been asked of me
                                    Across the years & loneliness
                                    To which I simply responded
                                    With the same barely audible

                                    Silence that I had chosen then

            Chapter three, The Auroras, is an exploration of mortality. St. Johns form alters drastically for this section (suddenly theres punctuation!) which announces to the reader that the voice has somehow changed. His lines are longer and the stanzas of free-verse seem to be more prose-based and wanting to share as much as possible within the limited space of each page. Immediately the aurora metaphor is clearer - the colorful and striking eternal changing of everything is the ultimate ingredient for life. The ability to move through its shifts without attachment and without the need to control it is the human challenge. In I. Dawn Aurora, St. John says:

                                    The nothing that you know is as immaculate a knowing
                                    as any moment moving from a distance into dawn.
                                    All of the awakenings, or the old unconscious lies       
He revisits the idea of connection and his rain metaphor in III. Autumn Aurora:

                                    The illusionist steps to the stage. Everything
                                    he claims will be, will be. I know because Ive watched him
                                    before the curtains began to part, & Ive seen he is not just
                                    one man, but he is also a woman. He is as multiple
                                    as the rain. 

Readers understand that the poet is pondering death as he writes about the famous Parisian cemetery in IX. Pere Lachaise. He moves from the micro to the macro - from his descriptions of the cemeterys virgin headstones, jeweled with rubies, from reflections within the onyx to his reminiscing about the death of a friend, thousands of miles away, who dressed in brass cymbals that chimed with each move. This stunning image moves into a celebratory final line that doubles as a commentary on ridiculous social/religious norms, When they / found him later, dead, they said how pagan hed become in his nakedness, / in his glory. The auroras are what St. John hopes the readers will stop and consider - then follow as a guide. They are wet, vulnerable, qualities that make them worthwhile. As such, he gives readers a lasting piece of advice in one of the final poems.  In VII. Ghost Aurora, St. John states:

                  What could be more useful than a loving
                  principle lifted slowly out of particles, like the frond of a morning fern
                  uncurling? Take up your coat; take up the morning. This is what it means
                  to lure the phantom out of the dark, until she lifts us into the space
                                 of song.  

One need not be afraid of the rain.

Tom Griffen is a student in Pacific University’s low-residency program for poetry. His work will be published in upcoming issues of The Crab Orchard Review and The Suisun Valley Review. He is also a visual artist and curator of the "We Are Carrboro" photography project in his hometown of Carrboro, North Carolina. See more at

May 7, 2014

Apocrypha by Emily Saso

Harpur Palate would like to congratulate Emily Saso, winner of the Undergraduate Flash Fiction Contest. Her story appears below and will be read at the Launch Party for Issues 13.1 and 13.2. Thank you to everyone who participated in the contest. Please enjoy 'Apocrypha.'

There were nights my mother came home, and there were nights she did not.
On nights she came home we read about Word War II. Under the damask quilt in a blue and yellow room, she asked me, did I know how the Danish King Christian X responded to a long birthday letter from Hitler? Spreche meinen besten dank aus, Chr. Rex. Giving my best thanks, King Christian. Hitler felt it showed ingratitude, and since he had left the Danish government intact during his occupation, he thought there ought to be a certain amount of thankfulness coming his way. My mother read out loud from a book all about King Christian X, who rode through the crowd in Copenhagen unguarded, who removed a German flag from a hotel rooftop even after he was warned he would be shot in the process. And as she stared into a colored photo of the King riding his stallion and pointed out the horse’s baroque qualities (thick-bodied; chestnut with a roman nose) I looked at her own features and closed my eyes to see if I could re-create her broad flat forehead and jutted chin and everything in between. I would need something to work off when I was alone in the blue and yellow room, the blanket pulled up to my throat, devouring passage after passage of text on the great Danish King that held my mother’s attention so resolutely.
On nights she did not come home my father and I ate pasta in front of the television. We watched game shows and made up answers to questions that bewildered us. Which French chemist developed a fermenting agent for Heineken? Marie Curie. Which actress won a golden globe for Paul Newman’s directorial debut? Marie Curie. And even though we were happy spilling tomato sauce on the table and guessing which contestant had a bunk buzzer, we glanced at the phone during muted commercial breaks, dreading both the presence and absence of a ring. If she called to say she was leaving work soon, she was lying, and we would not see her until the morning. If the phone stayed silent, she had already gone to find out what the night could offer her elsewhere, and on an island of two hundred and twenty eight numbered streets plus Alphabet City, there was no shortage of elsewheres.
When we could stretch out dinner no longer, my father turned on the computer and played solitaire for hour after hour, his face unreadable and bizarrely washed azure with the screen’s glare. I crept into my bed, but did not sleep. I tried to read the book about the Danish King, who caused the Easter Crisis of 1920 in a rash and selfish decision to take more land from Germans than he was owed, who fell off his horse and became an invalid after World War II was over. Sometimes I closed my eyes to conjure my mother’s profile that I had worked so hard to memorize, and found I could name and describe the features perfectly but, through the tunnel of memory, they appeared distorted. Her slightly pursed mouth turned into a long-lipped snout, not unlike a bear’s, and her deep-set eyes became increasingly ursine as well. I couldn’t shake the image of my mother as a bear and in the sleep that eventually came I dreamt she was a great Grizzly, sometimes carrying me by the scruff of my neck to safety, other times pinning me to the ground in a rage. When I woke I lay flat against my sheets, trying to stay in the realm of the dream, knowing that if I padded over to the next room my father would still be clicking away at the cards that stacked and shuffled at random and he would invite me to play a game with him. But I never got up; I forced myself to turn on the light and read chapters full of Danish expressions and war terms I couldn’t understand.
Occasionally, struggling through the rough material, I turned factoids into quiz show questions. What did a young boy once say when asked why King Christian needed no armed protectors? That all of Denmark was his bodyguard. The exchange was apocryphal, but nonetheless a nice lens through which to look back on someone who had failed his people and then triumphed and then failed again. If my mother had been present she would have claimed King Christian wore a yellow star to support the Jews, but this story, too, was false. It was another legend born out of the King’s eventual absence, when the Danish people’s minds were free to create whatever image of him they thought he deserved, their collective memory skewered by sentimentality and an innate instinct to gloss over moments of doubt.
I fell asleep for the second time with the book on my chest and my father, seeing my lamp still glowing, entered my room and tried to arrange my body into a better position. But I rolled away from his touch every time, clutching the history book hard between my palms, knowing if my mother saw me in the morning without it she would be disappointed.