Monthly Archives: July 2020

Book Review — The Fall of America Journals, 1965–1971

The Fall of America Journals, 1965–1971 by Allen Ginsberg is a publication of the University of Minnesota Press.  Ginsberg was an American poet and writer. As a student at Columbia University in the 1940s, he began friendships with William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, forming the core of the Beat Generation. He vigorously opposed militarism, economic materialism, and sexual repression, and he embodied various aspects of this counterculture with his views on drugs, hostility to bureaucracy, and openness to Eastern religions.

The journals are edited, transcribed, and annotated by Michael Schumacher. Schumacher has written extensively about Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation. His articles, reviews, and essays have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. He is editor of Family Business, a collection of letters between Allen and Louis Ginsberg, and The Essential Ginsberg, a volume of the best of Ginsberg’s poems, essays, songs, letters, journal entries, interviews, and photographs.

Ginsberg’s journals have been published in the past, most notably his journals from Cuba and Czechoslavakia.  Those journals were mainly travelogues recording his experiences.  The Fall of America Journals are very different.  These were meant to be a recording of art as it happened.  With a tape recorder from Bob Dylan and a van from a grant, Ginsberg wanted to create his own version of “On The Road” in audio format.  The beginning of the journal is mostly descriptive of the Pacific Northwest but peppered with dreams, worry over Vietnam, interactions with the people he is with.  It reads almost the same as the Eastern European Journals.  However, about a quarter of the way through the book Ginsberg breaks out in poetry.  It is rough and unhewn, but with notes from Schumacher, the reader can see the development of the poems that would become The Fall of America. The text also contains photographs of the journeys and something that surprised me.  Although I am by no means a Ginsberg expert, I have read some of his and his colleagues’ poetry.  One of the photographs is the notes for a poem about my home town.  A poem I missed in all my other reading.

The reading goes on sometimes fragmented and other times seeming almost complete.  It is interesting to follow along with Schumacher’s notes as to what is being recorded and where it falls into The Fall of America. Having both books open and available is rewarding — the inspiration and the final product.  Although the journals can be read straight through, it is not an easy task. Schumacher’s notations in the text and introductions provide the reader with enough background and context to follow along.  The notations are helpful but sometimes seem to be a bit much.  For example, Joan Baez is cited as a “popular folksinger.”  All in all, this is an excellent companion to The Fall of America and a personal look at Ginsberg’s thoughts on war, drugs, sex, and America.

Available: 10 November 2020

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Poetry Review — The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown

The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown by Sterling A. Brown is a publication of Northwestern University Press. Brown was a black professor, folklorist, poet, literary critic, and first Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia. He chiefly studied black culture of the Southern United States and was a full professor at Howard University for most of his career. He was a visiting professor at several other notable institutions, including Vassar College, New York University (NYU), Atlanta University, and Yale University.

A fascinating collection of poetry that takes on several forms.  The most natural form to recognize is the lyrical poetry that not only tells a story but does so with a rhythm that feels like it is connected to a blues guitar.  Other poems tell of the black man in the small towns of the South.  Slavery, violence, and assumed guilt are not left out.  Somethings have changed very little:

Let us forgive Ty Kendricks.
The place was Darktown. He was young.
His nerves were jittery. The day was hot.
The Negro ran out of the alley.
And so he shot.

Let us understand Ty Kendricks.
The Negro must have been dangerous,
Because he ran;
And here was a rookie with a chance
To prove himself a man.

The roots to the old South are apparent in the poems:

Old king cotton
Old man cotton 
Keeps us slavin’
Till we’ se dead an’ rotten.

The voice of the poems shift from colloquial usage of the 1920s and back to the nineteenth-century vernacular:

I’m Kentucky born,
Kentucky bred,
Gonna brag about Kentucky
Till I’m dead.

Thoroughbred horses,
Hansome, fas’,
I ain’t got nothin’
But a dam’ jackass.

Women as purty
As Kingdom Come,
Ain’t got no woman
‘ Cause I’m black and dumb

For those easily offended, there are plenty of slurs throughout the collection for both black and white races.  They serve their purpose well in time and place.   It is a reflection of the reality of the time when the poems were written and before.  There is a great deal of cultural history presented in the collection.  It is also a necessary history of a time many are uncomfortable talking about.  An essential part of both American literature and culture.





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Book Review — The Nose and Other Stories

The Nose and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol and Translated by Susanne Fusso is a Columbia University Press publication.  Gogol was a Russian dramatist of Ukrainian origin. Although Gogol was considered by his contemporaries to be one of the preeminent figures of the natural school of Russian literary realism, this collection is an example of the more surreal and grotesque.  Fusso is a specialist in nineteenth-century Russian prose, especially Gogol and Dostoevsky. She is the author of Designing Dead Souls: An Anatomy of Disorder in Gogol and Discovering Sexuality in Dostoevsky.

A hellish trip for a messenger, a man’s nose that has a life of its own, a man slipping into madness, hidden stories of a well-described street, and a story of a man and his overcoat round out the stories in the collection.  The title story, which starts out shockingly as a barber finds a nose in his morning bread, has a humorous side as its owner goes in search of the missing appendage.  The rank conscious owner is in an awkward position as the nose not only outranks him but dismisses him.  Gogol’s other stories capture real issues in Russian society and twist them violently.  Class, greed, sex, and status are all covered in different stories.  There is a strange humor in many of the stories unlike “The Nose,” “The Diary of a Mad Man” is a descent into madness, a grave plot topic, but the character’s delusions are quite humorous.  Other stories like “The Carriage” seem to touch the absurd.

Gogol is a master of short stories.  He delivers excellent detail with minimal use of words, and this survives in the superb translation.  His darker side runs the full range from horror to humorous to a combination of both.  Fusso’s translation captures nineteenth-century Russian life as well as the setting while faithfully rendering it into English.  Her translation captures all of Gogol’s magic.

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Book Review — Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East

Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East by Philip H. Gordon is a St. Martin Press publication.  Gordon is an American diplomat and foreign policy expert. From 2013 to 2015, Gordon served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf Region. From 2009 to 2013, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.

In August 2007, a section of I-35 in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring 145.  A commentator on the disaster said that part of the problem was that America was a great builder.  It took pride in building great works, but maintenance is rarely an afterthought.  This seems like an adept analogy for American regime change in other countries.  We will remove the regime but do little to establish a new system.  There are exceptions.  Installing the Shah as leader of Iran in 1953 and the overthrow of Allende in Chile in 1973 created decades of stable governments but under less than democratic rule.  Panama and Grenada proved to be mostly successful.

Gordon borrows from Tolstoy to make another analogy — every unsuccessful regime change is unsuccessful in its own way.  There is not a formula that fits regime change, and rarely one that provides positive results.  The First Gulf War stopped short of removing Hussein because it would have left a power vacuum.  There was no replacement government.  There was no one or group to assume power, and the country would soon fall under Iranian influence.  In the second war, we expected that the people would rise and greet us as liberators.  In fact, the vice president was quoted: “Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” This was not to be the case.

Losing the Long Game studies regime change in Iran (1953), Afghanistan (1979-1992), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Egypt (2011), Libya (2011), and Syria (2011).  The US involvement in the first Afghanistan conflict was by proxy to oust the Soviet government and support the resistance.  Here we helped create and empower our own enemies. That was by no means the plan.  America likes the easy part of overthrowing regimes.  We have the military power to do so with minimum loss of life on our part. When it comes to peacekeeping and nation-building, we shy away.  Although the loss of life in war is a terrible cost, there is a tolerance for it in public opinion as long as it is seen as a good fight or a battle against evil.  Death in peacekeeping or nation-building has little patience in public opinion.  Elected leaders feel the need to bring the troops back home as quickly and safely as possible.

After World War II, America stayed in Germany and Japan and kept the peace and allowed for nation-building.  Germany did have a background in elected governments, and the Soviet threat also created motivation for a stable government.  In Japan, we let the emperor live and allowed him to remain a ceremonial leader keeping the people united.  Douglas MacArthur drafted the new constitution, and its promise seemed to make us less of a hostile occupying force.  In both cases, we remained and, to some extent, still remain safeguarding their sovereignty.  We do not have that in the Middle East.  We are not liked and really never have been.

The US use of force in the Middle East is seen as interference and not as assistance.  These are lands that, in many places, are made up of competing tribes and factions held together by strong leadership.  In the absence of leadership, they do not just fold, they fight among themselves for power and create further instability. No two regimes are alike, and so far, we only recognize this in hindsight.  America’s policies in the Middle East and Near Asia remain a difficult situation.  Interference digs us a deeper hole. Non-intervention creates moral dilemmas and security issues.  We have the will to fight but not the will to rebuild.  We attack symptoms but ignore the cause.  An excellent book examining historical and current failures in diplomatic and military interventions.

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Poetry Review — Land’s End: New and Selected Poems

Land’s End: New and Selected Poems by Gail Mazur is published by the University of Chicago Press.  Mazur, a graduate of Smith College, is the author of several collections of poetry.  In 1973, she founded the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Harvard Square. Mazur has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, and the Radcliffe Institute. She is Distinguished Senior Writer in Residence in Emerson College’s graduate program.

Range is a word that must be associated with Mazur.  She begins her new poems with Beatniks and McCarthy and smoothly moves into nature with the title poem, “Walking Barefoot, August,” and “Thoreauvian.” There is a nuanced fluidity to the poems that allow the subject to change as waves reach the beach.  Smooth in style.  Each poem seems unhurried and restful —  a verbal Monet.  Perhaps that too helps the reader visualize the summer sun, beach, or the hermit crab.  Nature claims a role in her writing:

They say the mind is an ocean,
but sometimes my mind is a pond
circular, shady,

obscure and surrounding the pond,
scrub oak, poison ivy, inedible
low hanging berries,

~ “Poem”

Brilliant, easy to read, and slip into poetry.  There are no airs or elaborate styling to the poetry. It is the kind of poetry that one drifts into and experiences.

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Poetry Review — Time Being

Time Being: Poems by Oni Buchanan is published by the Kuhl House of the University of Iowa Press.  The Kuhl House Poets combine the best of dedicated craft and contemporary vision. This provocative series reawakens readers to a fresh consideration of the possibilities of language and feeling by publishing work that is formally and verbally inventive, adventurous work that takes its own path outside established routes of either traditions or experimental poetry. Buchanan has published three previous books of poetry, including What Animal. She is the founder and director of Ariel Artists.

Using split lines, gapped lines, and panhandled four-line stanzas, Buchanan creates poetry that encourages thought and depth.  The capital letter of the physical “sentence” is buried in the midline, forcing the reader to process the differences in line breaks and complete thoughts.  The result is a pleasant scramble to complete ideas and develop a mental picture.  One of my favorite parts comes very early on in the collection:

and people half-assing | the beating down of some
representational animal | stubbornly

metaphoric animal | to achieve a low-quality
leak of generic | drugstore candy —


At the center of the collection is a long, twelve-page,  sort lined poem that creates a rhythm of a freight train — Strong, almost mechanically punctuated rhythm that pulls through the pages with precision and ease.

The collection closes with more traditional style poems of summer, warmth, gardens, and closes with the very touching title poem.  Buchanan captures both poetry and experimental style in a near-perfect balance.  An enriching read.

Available: 15 October 2020

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Poetry Review –The Mouth of Earth: Poems

The Mouth of Earth: Poems by Sarah P. Strong is published by the University of Nevada Press. Strong is the author of two poetry collections, Tour of the Breath Gallery, winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize, and this collection. She has also written two novels, The Fainting Room and Burning the Sea. Strong teaches creative writing at Central Connecticut State University and the University of Hartford.

Strong weaves together a collection of poetry on being human and also being part of the planet.  In “Fire Burns Grass,” the poet recalls how she and old friend changed the rules.  Rock, paper, scissors became grass, water, and fire.  She is now standing at home talking to a friend on the phone as California wildfires burn outside.  As man changed the rules of nature, nature fought back.  In this poem and particularly in the long poem “Dust,” which takes up the second section of the collection, the conflict becomes apparent.

Man’s priorities shift the system and our thinking.  Stalin allegedly said. “One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic.” In college, the poet read the book Stalin, and although twenty million people died in the famine and purges, the only name of the dead she could recall is Trotsky.  Suddenly a flash of young children in her house: innocence, humbler times, and the incompatibility of planning harm on anyone. We have the capability of being better.

The world that we live in is fake, and we just seem to accept that as normal.  “Diner” presents a little too realistic look at our food and our lives that hide under the veneer of normalcy.  The bees, however, seem to be fighting the good fight even with man’s interference.  Welcome to the Anthropocene.

An excellent collection of meaningful poetry told with grace and even humor… and a twist if you look below the surface.

Available:  6 October 2020

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Poetry Review — Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution

Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution edited by Mark Eisner and Tina Escaja is published by W. W. Norton and Company’s Tin House.  Eisner spent many years backpacking through Latin America, focused on experiential learning, especially in Chile, where he translated Neruda on a rustic ranch near the coast. He has published NERUDA: The Biography of a Poet. Escaja is Distinguished Professor of Romance Languages and Gender & Women’s Studies, and Director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Vermont.

Latin America has historically been a region of violence.  From the bloody colonization, wars of independence, American occupations, coups, juntas, and outside interference peace and prosperity elude these rich lands.   It is a place of walls — to control people, to bury people, as a backdrop for firing squads, and as prisons.  The walls, however, also became the billboards of resistance with messages of hope and rebellion.  Julia Alvarez provides this insight in her introduction to the collection.  Alvarez is a Dominican-American poet, novelist, and essayist who sets the stage for the poetry with her moving words.

The poets come from a variety of countries, many of them in the headlines in the 1970s and 1980s.  Chile (Pinochet), El Salvador (Sandinistas), Panama (Ortega), Nicaragua (Contras and Somoza), and the list goes on with no country experiencing a free and open society.  Topics consist of poverty and unequal wealth distribution inside the country and from the north. For example, Jose Leonel Rugama compares the cost of the Apollo program to the starvation in Nicaragua — “Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the moon.” The poems also capture the violence:

If, one day, on your street corner, death comes to you as a stray
bullet; if death grabs you from behind and kisses you on the
back of your neck with its tooth of lead;
Carlos Aguasaco

Latin America is a land of exceptional beauty, but a great deal has been ruined.  From Haiti to the Amazon forests, governments either allow the destruction or actively take part in the rape of the land.  There is a call for nature, and a cleaner life in the poetry in Ernest Pepin’s “This is my Country Rising.”

At the end of the collection, each poet is given a paragraph biography.  The many translators are also given individual biographies, including their academic and published works.  An impressive collection of Latin American poetry with a theme that many today can still embrace.

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Audiobook Review — The Wonderland Collection

The Wonderland Collection by Lewis Carroll and narrated by Simon Bubb is produced by HarperCollins Christian Audio.  Carroll was an English writer of children’s fiction. He was noted for his facility at wordplay, logic, and fantasy. The poems “Jabberwocky” and “The Hunting of the Snark” are classified in the genre of literary nonsense. Bubb is an audiobook narrator known for his subtlety, nuanced tone, and facility with accents as an integral component of his narration, according to AudioFile magazine.

The Wonderland Series seems to be a nonsensical children’s tale, but so much has stuck with us into adulthood.  We often speak of the “Rabbit Hole.”  Jefferson Airplane sang of the pills to make your shorter or taller and of the Hooka Smoking Caterpillar.  We continue to say, “Mad as a Hatter.” But there is more to the story that we think. It does not end with Alice being sentenced by the Queen of Hearts —  “Off with her head.”  The sequel “Through the Looking Glass” takes Alice on an adventure to an alternative world on the other side of a mirror.  The last book does not deal with Alice but is a book of “knots” or mathematical problems in story form that were printed as a serial in the Monthly Packet magazine.  Concealing the math in the stories allowed Carroll to “hide medicine in jam” creating an early version of edutainment.

A fun journey back to childhood and a time when we took things less seriously.  Bubb’s narration is excellent with just enough British accent to remind the reader of the stories’ origin.  The changes in character voice are subtle but easily recognizable.  An enjoyable journey.

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Poetry Review — African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill,
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

“Bury Me in a Free Land”
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song edited by Kevin Young is a Library of America Publication.  Young was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. He studied under Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido at Harvard University and, while a student there, became a member of the Dark Room Collective, a community of African American writers. He was awarded a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University and later earned an MFA from Brown University.

This analogy presents the poetry in separate sections, but reading the collection all the way through, which usually isn’t done, the poetry becomes a tree.  The roots are firmly planted in slaveholding America, both North, and South.  From there, it develops and branches out.  Freedom and religion forming the first branching in the poetry.  There is a connection to America even though the troubles run deep. Phillis Wheatley, the first black poet to publish a collection of poetry, earned fame in England and the Colonies.  She received the praise of George Washington as well as writing him a letter/poem when he was still a general in the army.  That event came around again in 1993 with Maya Angelou’s inaugural poem at President Clinton’s ceremony in 1993.  There is an investment in America that not only can’t be repaid but is often just ignored:

“”My history-moulding ancestors
Planted the first crops of wheat on these shores,
Built ships to conquer the seven seas,
Erected the Cotton Empire,
Flung railroads across a hemisphere,
Disemboweled the earth’s iron and coal,
Tunneled the mountains and bridged rivers,
Harvested the grain and hewed forests,
Sentineled the Thirteen Colonies,
Unfurled Old Glory at the North Pole,
Fought a hundred battles for the Republic.””

Melvin B. Tolson, “Dark Symphony”


After the First World War and the experience of real freedom and equality from the French, but not Americans, a new breed of poetry evolves.  Jazz and the Rise of the Harlem Renaissance bring new poets and a new boldness.  Langston Hughes, although thoroughly modern, pays tribute to the past in language, which contemporary society saw as crudeness rather than a homage to the past. He remains modern but connected to the roots of African-American poetry.  The following section is the Chicago Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement.  Poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and beat poet Bob Kaufman rise in popularity and new branches grow.  The fifteen years between 1960 and 1975 is an outburst of political poetry lead by Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez.  The poetry then moves to the more complex with poets like Yusef Komunyakaa and (Pulitzer Prize winner) Rita Dove.

The anthology ends with more current poets.  There is a blossoming of talent that reminds us of the past– both in failures in society and tributes to the heroes.  Kevin Young wrote his introduction on Juneteeth, 2020, and closes with thoughts on racist violence that still exist in America.  The reader may think if only he waited, maybe this could be fixed in the next election in a few months. But, it has been a few months for two hundred and fifty years.  An excellent collection of poetry that is also the American history we like to forget.

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