Monthly Archives: February 2017

Book Review — The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats

The Best Minds of My Generation by Allen Ginsberg

The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats by Allen Ginsberg is a college course on the beat generation. Ginsberg needs little introduction, but as an author of nonfiction, some introduction is in order. Ginsberg is perhaps best known as one of the original Beat writers and most notably for “The Howl” and the obscenity trials. His collection The Fall shared the 1974 National Book Award and a Pulitzer Finalist for his work Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986–1992.

This book serves as the basis for the classes Ginsburg taught at Naropa Institute and at Brooklyn College. Like many liberal arts courses getting to the end of the information that needs to be presented in the time allowed for the class… one rarely finishes. The overwhelming amount of information is a limiting factor of the detail of the presentation. Also, different areas tend to be given more attention than others. By putting the course into book format, the information is preserved in detail and the reader is free to take in the information in any order. Although not hearing the instructor/author speak, the reader is also not relying on their hurried notes.

If there was a leader of the Beats, Ginsberg insists it was Kerouac. Kerouac is given the biggest section of the book. Ginsberg analyzes several books and the history of the publication. He also gives first-hand information on Kerouac’s life and writing experience. Most of Kerouac’s books are at least semi-autobiographical and Ginsberg gives the behind scene look. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks ties Kerouac to Burroughs.

William S. Burroughs is covered next. Part of this section concerns Burroughs letters to Ginsberg while he was in South America. Readers who have read Junkie remember Burroughs (writing as William Lee) signing off with his plan to head to South America and search for the hallucinogen yage. The letters pick up there (much like Kerouac’s books run back to back). Needless to say, Burroughs does find the yage and writes about it. Ginsberg goes on to explain Burroughs cut-up style. The explanation includes the theory behind the cut-up method which seems to make more sense than the method itself. The idea is that we are presented with information in such a way to hide the real message. The cut-up reveals the true method. The idea was that you could take a Nixon speech, cut it up, rearrange the pieces, and find out the true meaning of the speech.

William Carlos Williams had a great influence on Ginsberg and is praised throughout the book, Gregory Corso, Hubert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, Carl Solomon, Peter Orlovsky, and of course Neal Cassady all have a small section of the book. Ginsberg does include himself and it is informative and yet very humble. As the central figure and historian of Beats, Ginsberg plays the role of the narrator rather than a major player. The introduction is by Anne Waldman poet and a member of the Outrider experimental poetry community and she provides and excellent introduction. The Best Minds of My Generation provides a detailed examination of the beat movement and its members. Small chapters with descriptive titles will also allow the read to pick and choose their interests if they do not want to read the book cover to cover. An excellent history.
Available 4/4/17

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Book Review — The Accusation

The Accusation by Bandi

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi is a collection of short stories that take place in North Korea around the transition of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Bandi, a pseudonym, is more of a mysterious person. He lived in North Korea and presumably still does. His writings have been smuggled out of North Korea and have been published in South Korea and France. Bandi is Korean for firefly and is shedding his little bit of light in a dark country.

Anyone who is trying to stay current on North Korea has read the recent nonfiction and quickly comes to realize how little is actually known about the country. After a few books, the reader will see the same stories repeat over again. Most of what is written about North Korea comes from defectors and their stories have been well used. Jang Jin-sung, poet laureate, and South Korea propaganda expert was the only high-level government official to defect until very recently. He offered more of an understanding of the whys of the regime rather than just the whats.

Bandi offers a selection of short stories that leave the reader wondering. The stories are fiction but fit so well with the actual conditions of the country. It is a bit like a dystopian episode of the Twilight Zone. You know it’s fiction but it feels so real. The feeling of being trapped in a nightmare is very real. From the sins of the father being carried to the next generation to the fear that something a child might do will damage your family’s position. Interestingly, there is very little about the outside enemy in this collection. There is no mention of the United States’ determination to end the worker’s paradise and there is only passing mention of the South’s propaganda being blasted over the border to the north. Everything happens inside North Korea as it works to make itself an island separate from the rest of the world.

Inside people spend their lives trying to stay within the ever shrinking lines. Loyalty is the most important thing. One man’s son cracks to his father, “You took a cup of sorrow and cried a pitcher of tears” concerning the death of Kim Il-Sung. Another character talks of a magical garden where cries of pain and suffering are distorted into laughter. School children watch the trial and execution of a man tied to a peach tree. The rope that was used to tie the man had more of an impact than the execution. The rope bound a person into helplessness. Perhaps there are things worse than death.

One cannot but feel the entrapment and hopelessness of many of the people. Some follow not to get noticed. Some follow out of fear. Some dare hope to escape. The majority know they are stuck and try to ignore their surroundings and live in an illusion of a positive attitude. The stories are fiction, but the feelings and emotions in them seem very real. One wonders if the stories are fiction in only that names and places have been changed. Haunting fiction because the reader knows it can very well be true.

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Poetry Review — Poems in the Manner of

Poems in the Manner Of by David Lehman

Poems in the Manner Of by David Lehman is a tribute collection of poetry. In 1994, Lehman succeeded Donald Hall as the general editor of the University of Michigan Press’s Poets on Poetry series, a position he held for twelve years. In 1997, he teamed with Star Black in creating and directing the famed KGB Bar Monday night poetry series in New York City’s East Village. He has taught in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City since the program’s inception in 1996 and has served as poetry coordinator since 2003. He has edited The Best American Poetry Series since 1988.

I have become familiar with Lehman a few years ago and The Best of American Poetry Series. I look forward to this collection every year. I reviewed his New and Selected Poems in 2013. I enjoyed his writing and his edited works. This work is a bit different and some of it a bit out of my league. I have read some of the classical poets as well as some newcomers. Lehman has a far greater breadth of poets than I do and that lead me scrambling to look up some of the poets Lehman was paying tribute to. It was a learning experience for me and a welcomed one at that. I am still trying to fit the Freud multiple choice section and the Astrological charts. I did get the part of Hamlet on the Harvard fencing team and being foiled and the “Don’t fence me in”. I am sure there was more humor that I was just missing.

The poets I am familiar with were well done. Frost avoiding the path less traveled by just cutting through the pathless forest and the tribute to Gertrude Stein captured that same feeling of being over my head when I first read Tender Buttons. Some poems stuck with me through the collection like the “Poem in the Prophetic Manner” Lehman says was inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61” revisited. The poem, however, reads in the same rhythm as “Desolation Row” and ended with a “Chimes of Freedom” touch. A few poems later in “Poem in the Manner of the 1960s” a line read:

They are naked and the moon is yellow.

I could help thinking the that the moon isn’t yellow; it’s chicken. I suspect Lehman triggered the Bob Dylan part of my brain.

Tributes to Tennyson, William Carlos Williams, Byron, and Keats are unmistakable in style and theme. Non-poets are included too. Tributes to Hemingway, Woolf, Marilyn Monroe, Jazz music, and even mundane punctuation (which may include a nod to Woolf) are well done. As for the poets I did not know or know well, I learned a great deal and gained a new appreciation. A very worthwhile collection that allows the reader to branch out and has allowed the poet to show how other poets influence his work.

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Poetry Review — Everything Reminds You of Something Else

Everything Reminds You of Something Else by Elana Wolff

Everything Reminds You of Something Else by Elana Wolff is the poet’s fifth solo collection of poetry. Wolff is a Toronto-based poet, essayist, translator, and creator and facilitator of therapeutic art courses. She has taught English for Academic Purposes at York University in Toronto and at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Wolff’s poetry taps deep into the reader’s imagination. Words roll off the tongue and pass an almost dream like a vision. Alliteration and words that change in small degrees lead to leaps and jumps in meanings. Sometimes the words are fun and sometimes they induce a psychedelic journey. Not a drug induced Jim Morrison journey, but an intellectual, thinking journey into complex word masterpiece.

In the deep field where the spool people’s
old moon sometimes succeeds in moving
bog waters in June—to flow over
wan weeds and make them gleam, we meet
“Spool”

I felt for a while the sky was mine: the moon
the stars, the indigo wind; sun’s pale circle
rising at the horizon
“Meridian”

I was slaked like a calf at the teat last night,
perhaps because the stars were low,
so low their leaky light suffused the garden.
“Ouija Board”

Wolff weaves together themes of seasons, the moon, and the solstice. There is a primitiveness in the view of nature in many of the poems. The reader learns we are made of a combination of stardust and rain. Our complexity comes from the basic materials of nature; we are more than the sum of ingredients and poetry is much more than the sum of the words. A deep and enjoyable collection of poetry.

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Poetry Review — Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves by Mary Di Michele

Bicycle Thieves by Mary Di Michele is a collection of poems celebrating Italian heritage in Canada. Di Michele is a poet, novelist, and member of the collaborative writing group, Yoko’s Dogs, Mary di Michele is the author of 12 books. She has won numerous awards, including the Confederation Poets Prize and the Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize, and has appeared on shortlists for many others. Mary has been living in Montreal and teaching at Concordia University in the creative writing program for more than 25 years.

This collection play homage to Vittorio De Sica’s film of the same name and opens with a reflection back called, “Now He Drives a Taxi in Comox.” The poet reflects on her father’s as a young man and at the present. From the freezing mornings following along the horse driven milk wagon to sixty years later driving a taxi.

Montreal is beckoning,

the city, luminous in his mind; he can see again
the copper dome of St. Joseph’s Cathedral
rising newly polished against the sky and not
blanched by snow and passing time.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral is the largest church in Canada, third largest dome in the world St. Peter’s Basilica being the first. There is a tie into Catholic churches in both Canada and Italy. We see time passing and the now oxidized green dome. Her father sees the shining dome in his memory and the promise of a new home. We see a simple taxi driver. He sees progress. To him, he has moved up from carrying milk bottles through the winter cold and snow to sitting in a warm taxi. Hope, progress, and remembrance.

Aging and time are recurring themes in this collection. In “The Montreal Book of the Dead” the poet sees her father driving in the city even though he has been dead for three years. He did not age and is still in his prime. Perhaps the dead are not dead, but simply wandering the world without seeing us. She concludes:

Our dead

have retired and moved off island.
They are not gone, they have not passed on,
they are incommunicado.

There is a fear of aging. Not just turning thirty, but thirty twice over. I thought of Mick Jagger singing that he wanted to die before he got old. Now at seventy he is still jumping around the stage and is going to be a father again. Di Michele in her version offers Yukio Mishima the Japanese writer who committed ritual suicide at forty-five. She also tempts us with the thought — why must time be an arrow speeding into the future. What if time is circular?

The theme of time is expanded in the longest poem in the collection. “Life Sentences” is an autobiography written in one hundred tercets and falls in line with the biographical and autobiographical memories of the other poems in the collection. At the end of the collection, Di Michele acknowledges other poets that influenced her and cites lines of their works that she used in her work. A fine tribute and collection.

Available 4/11/17

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Poetry Review — Muted Serenades: The Collected Poems

Muted Serenades by Frank Dillon

Muted Serenades: The Collected Poems by Frank Dillon is a collection of poems influenced by other poets. Dillon is a practicing lawyer but outside the courtroom, much of his writing to date has been in the field of comedy. His lifelong passion, though, has been the writing of poetry. His work uses transparent language and a variety of forms to communicate a wide range of themes.

This collection is divided into four sections. Across the sections, I was impressed with the author’s use of color. Dillon captures color as a source imagery. He discusses color on a painter’s palette. Three shades of gray to which most people would seem the same but there is a difference to the artist making them different and important. Gray is a word used throughout the collection and Dillon makes a strong association with the color and cold, stone, and near depression.

Grey is countered by yellows, greens, the sun, and nature. There is an explosion of color when needed. This is the strongest point in the collection. Simple observations filled with vivid colors. His attempts with rhyme are overdone and seem amateurish. This, however, may or may not be a part of capturing another poet’s style. The poems on relationships are hit and miss. His nature and seasonal observations make up for the mishaps. “The Window that Overlooks the Garden” is an excellent example of Dillon tying everything together.

“Driving At Twilight” is an eight-part poem that is the centerpiece of the first section. Capturing the twilight– gray turning to black interrupted by the yellow light of evenings glow. There is a beauty that is disturbed by advertising, signs or the radio, promising empty grandeur.

It’s difficult to tell
Where this road might lead
Under sodium lights
At the close of the day

A solid collection of poetry that could have been better edited, but the where the poetry worked it shined.

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Poetry Review –With Paper for Feet

With Paper for Feet by Jennifer A. McGowan

With Paper for Feet by Jennifer A McGowan is a collection of narrative poems using folklore, historical literature, and even religion as a source. McGowan, one of Oxford’s Back Room Poets, graduated from Princeton with honors, and from the University of Wales for her M.A. and Ph.D. Despite being certified as disabled at age 16 with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, she went on to become a semi-professional mime and performed in five countries. She has published poetry and prose in various magazines and anthologies and has both written and recorded songs on several (small, but perfectly formed) labels. She loves teaching and has taught both under- and postgraduates at several universities.

With Paper for Feet opens with the poem White Woman Walks Across China with Paper for Feet. It is an interesting poem with probably an interesting story behind it. A white woman (who is half Chinese) travels across China searching for the ghost of her mother at her birthscape. My understanding of the term is a more metaphysical combination of birth, location, and environment. The woman goes from town to town living outdoors and writing in her journals. When asked she tells people that her mother haunts her. She documents everything sometimes getting lost in the stream of her thoughts. Paper is the one thing that gets heavier with use. Ink is absorbed into the paper. Her nine-month journey is accompanied by so much writing she could not send it back home. In a turn on paper, her feet being paper, she as a person learned much on the journey absorbing everything she crossed. It was through the paper of her feet that she learned so much, yet is unable to communicate it.

Despite the depth of the opening poem, the second was much lighter and easier to understand at first read like most of the other poems in the collection. The collection continues with poems on folklore from around the world. The second section consists of poems of ancient Greece and Troy. Poems on Shakespearean women comprise section three to include a poem on Shakespeare’s mother. Even with my limited Shakespeare experience, the poems were easy to understand and offered a modern insight to the women written of in seventeenth century England. The fourth section is a historical look at women in England including the writer of the first autobiography, Margery Kempe. One theme that is brought to the surface in that had been lurking in the other sections is witchcraft — particularly as it applied to women. Men could be doctors, but women healers were witches and met a much different fate than the country doctor.

The final section is short, but perhaps the sharpest critical section. The Bible and Biblical figures are subject to interpretation and revisionism. Solomon, the wise king, claimed his own rights to kingly privilege. Lot’s wife, who is never named in the Bible, is given a place in this poetry:

They left her there, solid tears
under a sky empty of everything
except a lone seraph, singing.

McGowan combines folklore, myth, and history with a modern poet’s vision. The view is supportive of women’s role in history and told from a modern woman’s view which is something throughout history that has been missing. A well done and thought-provoking collection of poetry.

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Poetry Review — Foraging

Foraging by Joy Howard
Foraging by Joy Howard is a short collection of mostly nature and personal poems. Howard runs Grey Hen Press and edits and publishes anthologies featuring poetry by older women. Her work has appeared in several publications over the years. Foraging is her first collection in quite some time.

Howard’s skill with words is quite impressive. This collection is mostly short poems that use few words to create sharp, crisp images. The words align like atoms in a perfect crystal. Every word used is needed and no word is unnecessary. Not a single word is out of place in her poetry matrix. I thought early on that this might be an arbitrary trait I picked up in her writing. Howard confirmed my thinking with the poem “A Perfect Hexagon” which examines the honeycomb structure of a beehive from an engineering and mathematical perspective. She mimics the bees efficiency in her writing and sacrifices nothing in the process.

At the Window, Waiting

She stands
owned by a locked landscape
snow trees mist

The stillness of eternity

She dreams
a green frock an open window
a crowding of ship’s masts

The expectation of love

“Lineage” compares the curl of plowed land to a wedding ring symbolizing the connection or marriage to the land. “Empty” describes a house falling apart after the owner dies. It parallels the poet’s feeling of loss of the person who once lived there. The poet’s hand being as empty as the house. Later in the collection, she writes about poetry, publishing, and a touching poem about her sister. Howard’s poems, although varying in topic, for mourning to jest all are written to an exacting standard. The exactness of the writing gives the poetry a natural beauty that shows no signs of being forced. It is efficient but organic. A pleasure to read and ponder.

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Book Review — Instrument of War: The German Army 1914–18

Instrument of War by Dennis E. Showalter

Instrument of War: The German Army 1914–18 by Dennis Showalter is a history of World War I based on the German participation. Showalter is a retired Professor of History, past President of the Society for Military History and Joint Editor of War in History specializing in comparative military history. He has written or edited two dozen books and a hundred fifty articles.

World War I was the war that could have been prevented, it, however, set the stage for the 20th century. It was the stubbornness of Austria-Hungary and their demands that brought on the violence. From all accounts, the Kaiser thought Serbia had met Austria-Hungary’s demands and planned on vacation. Franz Josef took the assassination of his despised nephew as the will of God and saw it as a way of accomplishing what he couldn’t. Unfortunately, his ministers saw things differently and moved to war. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Germany joined its ally. Russia came to the aid of its Slav allies. Germany moved against France, who was bound to aid Russia by treaty. Germany’s move through Belgium brought England to war. Much has been blamed on the entangling alliances as the cause for the war but one must remember too that the NATO alliance (and the Warsaw Pact for that matter) helped keep the peace in the Cold War. WWI was more the fault of faulty leaders than alliances meant to balance power.

World War I was history caught between pages. The advances in technology changed the world. The expansion of railroads meant that mobilization and transportation of troops and equipment could move at previously unattainable speeds. The machine gun was capable of killing on a scale never seen before. The internal combustion engine started to play a role in the military but was still too undependable to be counted on. Horses still played a major role in transportation at this time. That meant pulling animals from the farms which still used and needed them. It also meant feeding the animals. 84,000 horses used by the German’s required almost two million tons of feed a day; this came out of food that would be used by soldiers and civilians. Armies did not adapt to new technologies on the offensive. Killing charging masses of enemy troops is where the machine gun excelled. Advancing armies refused to learn their lesson.

The German army, like most powers, relied on reserve units. It differed in that their reserve units were trained and expected to hold their own in combat. Most nations reserves went to the rear and were used as fillers. The Russian army was in the worst position of the major powers. It’s rail system needed developing and the rally points for mobilization were spread across the vast country. Germany, on the other hand, exercised a near flawless mobilization and continued to be a successful force until it was not only beaten but out-soldiered at Vimy. No one expected a long war and no one was prepared to fight a drawn out war. The German army was statistically successful in creating three casualties for every two it suffered, but allied army size stood against the Germans in a war of attrition. A well-written history of Germany in World War I.

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Book Review — War over the Steppes: The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Front 1941–45

War over the Steppes by E. R. Hooton
War over the Steppes: The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Front 1941–45 by E. R. Hooton is a study of the air war fought between the Soviets and the Nazis in World War II. Hooton has been a journalist for 40 years and a defense journalist for about 25 years. He has written numerous articles on military history and three highly regarded books on the history of the Luftwaffe – The Luftwaffe: A Study in Air Power 1933-1945, Phoenix Triumphant: The Rise and Rise of the Luftwaffe and Eagle in Flames: The Fall of the Luftwaffe , as well as contributing to several others.

It was the shock that the Soviets knew to expect but pretended it would never happen after the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Two different totalitarian regimes would face off in one the most vicious series of battles and sieges in history. Both armies were ordered not to take a step back. The ground war was a series of atrocities and the cities under siege endured suffering beyond belief. The Nazi leadership knew the peace between Germany and the USSR would not last. The USSR consisted of Slavs and communists both of which were held in low esteem by the Nazis. The Soviet Union would also be a much-needed source of petroleum (and food) for German war machine that extended their supply line too far in their conquests.

The Germans, even before the attack, probed the Soviet border traveling deep inside the country on reconnaissance missions and to test the Soviet defenses. When the attack came it was decisive. The German ground and air forces moved in on an unprepared Soviet Union. German technology and experience moved quickly and effectively, stopped by only two things — winter and outrunning their supply lines. Initial Soviet resistance included the use of biplanes so far out of date they had little, if any, effect. The Soviets were behind in other technology including radar and communication radio. As a result, Soviet industrial production moved east and prepared to rebuild and resist. The Germans remained hurt by the overextended supply lines and logistics. The Soviet railways were a different gauge than the rest of Europe creating a transportation nightmare for the German resupply efforts.

Hooten uses released Russian documents, Nazi archives, and personal accounts to bring together a history of the air war in a theater that has been heavily documented in its ground war. Allied arms helped the Soviets but it was their own factories that turned out the equipment that allowed the Soviets to not only expel the Nazis but march all the way to Berlin. Hooten presents an example of a highly trained and skilled military with superior equipment fighting against a poorly trained military (many of its best leaders were subjected to Stalin’s purges) with an ill-trained peasant factory force and inferior equipment. The numerically superior ill-trained and equipped force was able to overcome the highly trained and prepared force with serious supply problems.

Hooten provides plenty of detail and information on the air units and their equipment. It is as much as a study of logistics and equipment as it is a narrative of the war. Perhaps one of the most important and heroic defenses in history as the Soviets held off the Nazis and denied them the much-needed petroleum that lay beyond Stalingrad. An excellent aviation war history.

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