Four Recent Chapbooks

The Laughing Game by Marianne Kunkel
Finishing Line Press, 2012
$14 paper

the lake has no saint by Stacey Waite
Tupelo Press, 2010
$9.95 paper

The Edge of Damage by Heather Swan
Parallel Press, 2009
$12 paper

My Life as an Island by Travis Mossotti
Moon City Press, 2013
$7.95 paper

Reviewed by James Crews

The Laughing Game by Marianne Kunkel is a fearless chapbook of poems. Though the title would seem to suggest a collection that focuses merely on humor (and there is certainly humor here), her poetry delves much deeper, dwelling in scenes from childhood and present moments with family members to arrive at the greater, devastating truth that we cannot easily escape our pasts—that is, if we are ever able to escape them at all. From the poems impeccably arranged throughout the chapbook, we can glean much about this speaker’s upbringing: we are shown scenes with a difficult, silent and confused mother, and we are told in “Blue Bistro & Grill” about her father who “packed both guitars and a shoebox/of underwear and hustled out of town/to his hippie lover’s one-room farmhouse.” In “Lost Father,” the speaker lists the places she searches for him after his abrupt departure:

I looked in the recycle bin.
I looked in my laptop’s Trash folder.
I looked in a mirror. I looked,
last we spoke, in your eyes—
dim green, cloudy from weeks
of binge drinking, shouting, leaving my mother—
and thought, Not here.

Like many of her poems, “Lost Father” ends on a note of quiet devastation. She says she searches all of these unlikely places for her father, but we can assume she means she is looking for leftover signs of him, some hint of his presence in her life. Not even looking in the mirror, however, the speaker tells us, returns him to her. And even seeing him up close, looking into his eyes, she knows he is not there. This is the portrait of a girl who lost her father long before he physically moved out of the house and left his family behind.

Luckily, Kunkel’s poetry provides many moments of redemption along the way, allowing us to see a speaker in love, having found a man she can at last trust. And in “What I Wish,” she lists her hopes for their love:

That it only cries when laughing,
naive to angry sounds: shrieking parrots,
all Slavic languages, the word cheat.
That it is kudzu weed, engulfing our house.
O, it is Cher, forever singing.

Knowing what we know about this speaker’s past, we can see why she might wish for the protection of “kudzu weed, engulfing our house,” or why she wants their love to go on like “Cher, forever singing,” “naive to . . . the word cheat.”

Kunkel’s poems are often short and playful in form, and they are spoken in musical, yet conversational tones that invite all readers into this world of memories and the saving grace of romantic love. But make no mistake: these unadorned and precise poems are often serious too (without being overwrought) as they describe a sister’s abortion, a cousin’s eating disorder, and as the speaker wrestles with a past that’s always threatening to undermine her future. In The Laughing Game Kunkel’s subject matter is essentially one young woman’s experience, often filtered through the lense of her own parents’ difficult marriage. In their focus, the poems in The Laughing Game make me think of the best poems of Sharon Olds, especially “I Go Back to May 1937,” in which Olds imagines her parents “standing at the formal gates of their colleges” before she was even born:

I want to go up to them and say Stop,  
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,  
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do . . .

The speaker of Kunkel’s “Before I Was Born,” the poem that ends the collection, must wish the same thing. This last poem leaves readers with the image of her parents sitting together in their living room, in front of the TV “laughing at the same one-liners.” She carefully re-creates her mother’s and father’s actions with an omniscient, cuttingly precise voice:

. . . She sets a knife by a fork and spoon
and recalls late nights with her mother, eating pie.
She admits she’s been crying. He wants her to admire
how clean he looks. Each faces a tiny disaster

the other doesn’t see.

Each of us often returns to the “disasters” of the past, hoping on some level that something in the intervening years has changed us, or has changed how we see our childhood, our parents and siblings. Yet Marianne Kunkel shows us there is also a quiet power in looking back and seeing things as they really happened, in telling about them clearly and honestly and measuring them against the kind of life we hope to live now.

Stacey Waite’s the lake has no saint, winner of the 2010 Tupelo Press Snowbound Chapbook Award, is one of the most cohesive and compelling collections I’ve come across in a long time. Waite is also the author of two other chapbooks, Choke (Thorngate Road, 2004) and Love Poem to Androgyny (Main Street Rag, 2007) and the recently published full-length collection, Butch Geography (Tupelo Press, 2013). Though Waite’s work has always questioned our culture’s notions of gender, detailing her own struggles to move us all beyond such binaries, the lake has no saint, is more unflinching in its gaze, in the ways that this mix of shorter lyric poems and prose pieces gives us a childhood tinged with unease, and a present moment, which might be besieged at any moment by violent outside forces. Redemption, for this speaker, seems to have come in the form a lover, yet even the act of making love together is a risk, as Waite shows us in the prose poem, “when you cannot remember the last time”:

. . . the neighbors have heard us moving into one another’s bodies though we could not hear them watching. the books from their cases are drowning in what they might have said . . .

One of the first things you notice about this chapbook is that the title of every piece begins with “when,” and though this might seem a small thing on the surface, this strategy has the effect of locating the reader, of leading us right into the poem. Some of the more fragmentary titles, however, can also intentionally disorient us even as they provide context, as with “when first to say i am sorry i am not at this point able to build what architects.” The title describes a failure to provide structure and itself fails to provide an entire structure, thus illustrating the point. This particular choice also, obviously, threads these poems together into a whole thing, letting us know that issues of time and memory will play central roles in this collection.

Waite dwells in the first half of the lake has no saint, in that shaky realm of childhood reflection where what is remembered is often strange and piecemeal at best—sometimes vivid, sometimes murky. As the speaker says in “when what is given breaks under”: “there is little of christmas i remember. one bicycle. my father’s yellow whiskey. no snow, though i am sure there was.” These poems also take up an early rejection of proscribed gender roles. The short, yet powerful “when praying for gender” ends with the lines:

the church dress i will not. the pigtails i will not. the long nights praying: please god, if you let me wake up and be a boy, i will never say another swear word again.

Waite also discusses the discomfort around “public bathroom doors” and “the stick figure triangle skirt that indicated the path we were to take.” But as we gather in these pieces about growing up at odds with the divisive masculine and feminine examples all around, as we read about the time the speaker, at sixteen years old, sneaked out of the house dressed in a suit to attend a drag show, we know that Waite will never be the kind of poet who simply describes; Waite must also question each experience, interrogating how and why we use the language we do when speaking of gender and in everyday speech. These poems seek most often to unsettle our entrenched ideas. Even the latter poems in the lake has no saint, which seem focused on a more domestic life with a lover, belie a certain unease and regret. Waite writes in “when after you have exhausted the possibilities”:

 . . . blue is not the color you will paint the new house though your body blue though your hands blue as what comes before a bruise she says what would will not lie beneath the haunted bed.

As these lines illustrate, there is also a sense of extravagant wordplay, a rejection of traditional syntax that creates a palpable tension in Waite’s work. It is a pure pleasure to quote from the poems in this chapbook, but it is also a disservice to these pieces, which beg to be read aloud in order to be fully felt in the mouth. With the lake has no saint, Stacey Waite has given us a collection both haunting and strange, for she knows that real life, love and memory are the strangest, most unsettling forces that exert their control over our lives.

The Edge of Damage, Heather Swan’s first collection of poems, functions almost like a full-length volume in the breadth of its scope and its intense concern for the state of our world and the environment as a whole. Swan has an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where was a Martha Meier Renk Fellow; she is currently pursuing a PhD there is Literary and Environmental Studies. And her passion for ecology and her timely examinations of global warming are apparent in poems like “Disintegration,” which asks us to envision a rising sea that ultimately engulfs the state of Florida:

I imagine sitting at a café table    near the shore
     my hands warm around a cup of tea
         as I watch the ocean pawing its way up the beach.

Larger-than-life subjects like climate change and animal extinction are often awkwardly handled by poets who turn abstract in their assertions or merely didactic, relying upon righteous anger to illustrate their points. But Swan’s vision of the fragile world is too tender for such strategies. Even in “Disintegration,” which meditates on how “The edges/will no longer be edges,” she masterfully shows us the environmental degradation to come by literally blurring the edges of the poem and giving us what, at first glance, might seem to be disjointed scenes and images—until we see that they all stem from the same love of the natural world. Indeed, all of the poems in this chapbook urge us to connect with the earth and with each other while we still can:

And I imagine our hands    weathered by then    pressing together
      the heat     erasing        the seam.

Whether she shows us a polar bear who “lumbers forth   ghostlike/over what is still frozen/but is becoming water,” or imagines the inner life of a beached whale, “her body once lithe/in the ocean,/now, like drying cement,” Heather Swan does not spare us the horrors and discontents of what seems at times a hopeless state of being. Yet The Edge of Damage never turns hopeless. As the book progresses, she soon moves us into more optimistic territory, forcing us to recall the opening poem in which she tells us that, even as Eve left the garden, she “knew they were not/exiting paradise, but entering.” For Swan, this “mutilated world” (as Adam Zagajewski has called it) is still worthy of praise, is still a kind of Eden we can keep coming back to over and over—if we pay attention, if we make the changes that will sustain it. This notion is echoed in many poems and particularly in “Cows, Bees, Rain,” when she points to

Bees, who labor
toward a sweetness
which is taken from them
again and again,
but keep returning
from the fields of clover.

She seems to suggest as well that there is some force at work that compels us as poets (and as humans) to keep coming back to the truth in order to focus on nature, which she argues, can make our lives more bearable. This force is certainly at work in the strongest piece in The Edge of Damage, “The Words of Noah’s Wife,” a long poem, which conjures for us a woman who has had no voice or interior life in most of literature until now. We see her struggling through what surely must have seemed the end of times, nothing less than apocalypse:

From the window today,
I saw the world:
ash, the water,
ash, the sky.

In each part of the poem, Swan leads us through day after day with Noah’s wife, and the tension grows as she waits for a sign that life will return to some semblance of normal. We wait too, on edge as the speaker struggles to find and hold onto the few moments of hope available to her on the ark. What’s fascinating about this piece is that Swan has reached back into one of Western culture’s most essential myths and has found a strikingly original voice that asks the same questions those now concerned about the environment are also asking:

How much damage
can we sustain?
How long will
the bees survive
without nectar?

It’s so refreshing to come across a poet who’s willing to take us—and herself—to the edges of potential and actual damage, but who also urges us, in the midst of such dark thoughts, to lock hands and come back from those uncertain places. I keep thinking of the final words of “Bowl”:

And in Japan,
the potter tells me,
when a tea bowl
cracks in the fire,
that crack is filled
with gold.

And long after I have finished reading The Edge of Damage, I see Heather Swan’s careful lines as veins of gold that fill the “cracks” we find all around us until even those so-called “flaws” seem to shine.

Travis Mossotti is the author of one previous collection of poems, About the Dead, which was chosen by Garrison Keillor for the 2011 May Swenson Poetry Award and published by Utah State University Press. His poems have appeared widely in such journals as Prairie Schooner, Poetry Ireland Review and Manchester Review, and he currently serves (intriguingly) as the Poet-in-Residence at the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis, Missouri. With his chapbook, My Life as an Island, Mossotti expands upon an ever-growing body of work that centers on a gritty, hardscrabble upbringing in and around St. Louis, with frequent forays across the Mississippi into Illinois. Though some readers might expect a chapbook—typically no more than 25 or 30 pages in length—to constrain itself in both focus and form, My Life as an Island, does no such thing. One look at the long poem that opens this collection tells us we are in for a cinematically sprawling, unsparing ride through the landscape this poet knows like the back of his callused hand. In discussing his father’s choice to resign himself to “upper-management,” Mossotti’s speaker confesses:

I found it nonsensical, choosing instead to let
a few musicians show me the true meaning
of a fifth of bourbon and a bar stool

too far from any rocky coast to conjure
an ocean, this river had to suffice.

And the Mississippi River becomes a presence that runs through these poems again and again. Mossotti, unlike some writers these days, knows that place and poetry go hand in hand, and that a poem had better take place in a world that actually exists, in a life that is your own whether you want to claim it or not. In one of the shortest poems in this chapbook, “I Had the Courage …”
Mossotti illuminates what he’s carried with him into the present day:

Now, I can’t recall much of my childhood,
or the ghosts I emptied
from the Mississippi into that body
of saltwater waiting at its mouth.

Yet My Life as an Island is all about memory and landscape, and Mossotti’s project reminds one of Richard Hugo’s poems, especially those in his last volume, White Center, in which he revisits the small town where he grew up with a measure of bitterness and disappointment. But if we’re lucky, we move on. And perhaps because Mossotti seems to be writing from that still point of having let go of those past attachments—that place from which clarity and awareness always emanate—we see his assertions about these Midwestern locales as nothing less than attempts to set the record as straight as he can: He wants to tell the truth as reliably as memory will allow. In the title poem of the chapbook, Mossotti takes us once again across that river, but this time it’s not to drink all night at a strip club or sew wild oats; as he tell us:

. . . My wife’s sister’s husband
fell in with another woman the night prior,

fingered off those pink dainties to hang
on a hotel doorknob, called room service

in the morning, and just couldn’t leave
well enough alone—then it became our problem.

Now he’s picking up the pieces for others in his family, still forced as we all are, to revisit and contemplate those places we’d most often rather leave behind. But as these poems attest, if we’re willing to do the work of looking hard at what we see around us, there is much to be gleaned from the casino billboards and roadkill deer, the city that lights up “like an electric fence,” though we know it will never keep us out.