Saturday, June 25, 2016

Willacoochee Book Review: A Stairway to the Sea

Justin Everson is a sheriff’s deputy in his hometown on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Things aren’t that great in St. Vincent these days. Things are weak, diluted, poor. Things are a tangled, stinkin’ mess. The recession has crippled the mill town, leaving it reeking with the odor of the paper mill and the odor of poverty and the odor of death.

Everson can’t sleep. He can’t stop thinking about his wife’s death, a death that left him confused about his life. Insomnia stalks him, pushing him into a fog, a mental state somewhere between reality and sleep. When Donnie Ray Miles is found drowned, Everson suspects foul play. The deputy carries no love for Miles, an Iraqi vet who came home under mysterious circumstances, but he does want to know the truth about Donnie Ray Miles’ time in the Army and the details of his death. As Everson investigates, his insomnia worsens, bringing with it visions of the dead.

Author Jeff Newberry writes about person and place with ease. He is intimate with the Gulf Coast and he pulls that intimacy into his prose. The story is raw, solid, and woven with mystery.

Good job, Newberry. Good job.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pieces of Poetry

Two hours past midnight the house is silent and dark. I enter my office, flip on lamps, and turn the oscillating fan to low. Moments later, I open the glass doors to the bookcase where most of my poetry books are stored. It’s that kind of night. Sleepless.

I am an insomniac.

I find nocturnal peace in poetry.

By the time I am settled comfortably on the couch, my feet tucked under me, the round piano stool within arm’s reach is topped off with the works of some of my favorite poets. I drink water from a jelly jar; it is too late for wine or coffee or tea. 

Stuffed inside a book by the poet Sherod Santos I discover a handwritten copy of “After a Long Illness.” The cursive is mine, slanted, looping, written in a rush. I don’t remember scribbling down his words, but it is something I often do. Certain fragments of the poem tug at me tonight.

            What can I say? In my mother’s
            house today no one is dying.

The fan creates a light breeze and mutes the few night sounds of a sleeping house. I read the poet’s words again. Aloud. My voice a whisper.

            What can I say? In my mother’s
            house today no one is dying.

I am reminded of prayer. My prayers are unlike the prayers of most people. My offerings are words that move me. Santos’s words shiver me, and I give them up as though a sacrifice. Pieces of a poem.

Further down, I read more of his words.

            Now above the aspen trees the clear stars drift
            in the moonlight of the shining sky as if on
            some long sigh they were carried away, and today
            there is no one dying in my mother’s house.

The next book is by Jeff Newberry. Big. Anxious. Happy. Sad. Afraid. Confident. Blazing. His new daughter is as beautiful as any baby I have ever seen, yet she is fragile. Her fragility frightens him. Jeff is a musician. Father. Teacher. Poet. Writer. When reading his poetry he often stands before his audience, and with his hands taps the rhythm against his leg. Is it the musician in him that moves to the tempo? Or is it the poet? Perhaps it is both. Brackish is his book of poems. I flip to “Coming Home.”

            I must have dreamed this place
            a thousand times, sweated
            nightmares of paper mill smoke

            clogging my lungs like creosote,
            my eyes dried to pitted coals.

            Each time I pass the Apalachicola
            Causeway, bay oysters sing
            in a blistered hymn, promise

            me if I plunge my palms
            deep into the surf, edge fingers
            down deep through sand & scallop,

            I’ll find a pearl left just for me.

            If I place the pearl on my tongue,
            my mouth will fill with sand

            so thick I’d drink salt water.

Dan Corrie. A poet in love with Earth. Environmentalist. Teacher. Some time ago I printed one of his poems from the computer. It is folded and wrinkled but legible. The fan moves back and forth, and I, skipping much of the poem, return to my favorite spot in “Swimming at Night.”

            My bare feet have walked where other feet walked
            sinking in the same mud of lake bed.
            Down these banks, boys waded in trousers.
            Young women in dresses waded past their waists
            barefoot into falling. Each fell, immersing
            breathless in baptism.
            I’ve stood with a shore’s congregation,
            Singing from a hymnal I held
            that others didn’t need.

 The cat leaps onto the couch and curls up at the opposite end. I open Splitting the Soil by Rosemary Rhodes Royston. She is both beautiful and talented. Clear eyes. An interesting face, lovely in its softness. Blonde hair. I dig into the warmth of her words.

            What I loved was the softness
            Of soil when my bare feet sand into the freshly tilled
            Garden and, as I grew braver, the woods,

Just a few days ago, in bare feet, my son snapped shots of the Alapaha River, and I grew braver, walking into the woods in bare feet. 

Christopher Martin. Smiling. Sincere. Passionate. Husband. Father. Son. Brother. Poet. Essayist. Editor. I hold one of his chapbooks, Everything Turns Away, and read again a fragment of the poem “Ringneck Snake, Lake Ackworth Trail.”

            I say nothing of my children back home,
            of how they stretch with me each time I leave,
            of how they touch my cold hands and face
            each time I return, of how each moment flees.

Brenda Sutton Rose. Me. Ugly hands. Insomniac. Introvert. Scarred. Stained. Artist. Writer. From a folder of published poems, I whisper from “Burial Ground,” published by Flycatcher Magazine.

            So that I might face my past,
            I dug these words from the richest southern soil

A memory: My son stands on the banks of the river. I plow through the woods, searching for unique rocks, digging my hands in the southern soil.
I skip huge chunks of the poem and read:

            pregnant with a future where
            nothing dies for long in fertile soil.

Janisse Ray. I think of a girl playing in a junk yard. I think of laughter. Nature. Soil. Moody Forest. Writer. Essayist. Poet. Naturalist. Teacher. Environmental activist. Fierce. Loving. Soft. Strong. Generous. Kindness resides on her face. Does it sleep there too? I don’t know, but I suspect it does. During a nature writing workshop at Janisse’s farm, I scribbled in my notes: Her voice carries the color of expectation, as though she knows we, her students, have something to give, something as vital as rain to dry earth.

Flipping through A House of Branches, I stop at “Future Seeking” and read again. 
I am filling my hope chest
In it I have
a rake, a hoe, an adze, a froe,
shovel, hammer, a curved knife,
a machete, an ax, a hatchet,
handsaw, drawing knife, scraper,
a screwdriver, pair of pliers, chisels,
wrenches, shears, a set of needles,
scissors, an awl, an anvil, a sledge,
clippers, a knife sharpener, file,
hole-diggers, a broom
a pocketknife.
Can you think of anything else I might need?

The fan picks up textures, consonants, vowels, images, syllables—portions of poetry by numerous poets— and flings them across the room.

I am filling my hope chest              (Janisse Ray)
In my mother’s house today no one is dying                  (Sherod Santos)
Nothing dies for long in southern soil                 (Brenda Sutton Rose)
If I place the pearl on my tongue               (Jeff Newberry)
In the moonlight of the shining sky                      (Sherod Santos)
As I grew braver, the woods                       (Rosemary Rhodes Royston)
I say nothing of my children back home              (Christopher Martin)
The softness of soil when my bare feet sank     (Rosemary Rhodes Royston)
Down these banks, boys waded in trousers                   (Daniel Corrie)
I must have dreamed this place                (Jeff Newberry)
Each time I return                (Christopher Martin)
Hole diggers, a broom, a pocketknife                   (Janisse Ray)
I dug these words from the richest southern soil           (Brenda Sutton Rose)
Can you think of anything else I might need?               (Janisse Ray)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Obsession, Humor, a Touch of Evil? Try "Baptizing the Cat"

Baptizing the Cat by Roberta George

Phillip Craine is a husband, a father, a lackluster artist, and a liar. His wealthy wife, Susan, believes the lie he told her twelve years ago. The lie? He is a CIA agent. Yep. A CIA operative. The lie falls from his lips with ease as the perfect cover for him to escape his humdrum life. As a CIA agent, he can dodge questions about his whereabouts and do whatever the hell he wants. And Susan, the wheezing, overweight wife, believes him.

One day, at his beach front condo in St. Petersburg, Phillip eyes a woman on the beach. The blonde is walking with a man who appears to be her love interest. After twelve years of marriage, Phillip has become sickened by the negative traits of his wife. And he is bored. His paintings lack creativity. Life is colorless. He’s in a rut. But the blonde on the beach? Oh! It doesn’t matter that she is with a man. Phillip sees the beach-beauty through the eyes of an artist and through the eyes of a man near death by boredom. 

Is it obsession at first sight?

Before long, Phillip is spying on the mysterious blonde, Catherine. He purchases equipment and listens in on conversations inside her apartment. Phillip’s obsession grows as he continues to take risks to spy on Catherine. She is the portrait he has never painted, the love he has never experienced, the woman of his dreams.

But there is Susan, the dumpy wife. She’s a problem in his plan. Phillip despises her allergic spells, the tent dresses she wears, the whine of her voice. And doesn’t he deserve more? Doesn’t he deserve love and adoration? Doesn’t he deserve a woman as desirable as the one he is painting?

Phillip devises a wretched, evil plan aimed at getting everything he wants.

Told from the perspective of the husband, Baptizing the Cat is a dark story braided with humor. Roberta George writes a tense plot with tight prose and creates a thrilling psychological novel. I read the book a few years ago and reread it again last week. It’s a winner.

I give it a five star rating. 5 out of 5!

Baptizing the Cat
by Roberta George of Valdosta, GA
Published by Snake Nation Press

Author of Dogwood Blues

Friday, June 26, 2015

Where All Light Tends to Go: Flannery O'Connor on Crystal Meth

Where All Light Tends to Go

Welcome to the nasty world of meth. Jacob is 18 years old and a high school dropout. His father, Charlie McNeely, controls the crystal meth business in Appalachia.  He’s the boss; he's a mean boss; he's cruel and heartless. Charlie's payroll includes local cops and men who torture and kill. But even though Charlie owns some of the cops he must stay ahead of the law. Not all the cops are crooks. The meth business is deadly and bloody. A loose tongue is a death sentence. And this evilness consumes young Jacob’s world. He lives and breathes it. Jacob knows he’s trash; he's a McNeely, and the McNeely name is dirt, the stinking dirt that's found near sewer water. His daily life consists of drug addicts and killers and thieves and liars. There's no homemade biscuits and gravy cooking in the McNeely house, but nearby, meth cooks. 

Charlie’s ex-wife—Jacob’s mother— snorts crystal meth provided by Charlie. Like I said, life ain't easy. The old man keeps Jacob's mother supplied with crystal meth. Not your average family. No, these people are a bloody mess, screwed up from the inside out, and Jacob wants no part of it. But it’s all he knows and he is, like it or not, a McNeely. He’s chained to this family legacy. He’s a prisoner to these backwoods. 

The story is damned bloody, violent. It reeks of pain. It’s frightening. It’s gritty and dirty and demeaning. David Joy writes evil and heartbreak with the pen of a poet. I compare this novel to the works of William Gay and Cormac McCarthy. I don’t normally read stories so grim— stories that rip my heart to shreds and make me wonder if kids born into evil have a chance in hell. But I read this story, and I am glad I did. It dissected my heart, but it left me thinking.

Some categorized Joy's debut novel as Southern Grit; I categorize it as Southern Evil. Flannery O'Connor on crystal meth.

Where All Light Tends to Go. On Goodreads, I'll give it a 5 star rating.

Author of Dogwood Blues