Introducing Andromeda

Our AndromedaIf you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to read more poetry (and I certainly hope you have), may I recommend you kick-start your new poetic regime by picking up a copy of Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy’s most recent collection. Our Andromeda was chosen by the New York Times as one of the “100 Notable Books of 2013” and was shortlisted for both the 2013 International Griffin Poetry Prize and the PEN/Open Book Award. It also featured on NPR’s list of “5 Books of Poetry to Get You Through the Summer,” but don’t let that put you off.

Poet Joy Katz describes Our Andromeda as “three-quarters cool thinkiness and one-quarter passion that’s all released at the end,” and that’s pretty apt: the first part of the collection consists of more formal, reserved ruminations on birth and motherhood, illness, and the frailty of the human body (though humor, puns, and allusion also abound)—and then comes the collection’s final, eponymous poem, a twenty-two-page letter to Shaughnessy’s son Cal, who suffered a brain injury at birth that has left him blind and without speech. It’s a raw, primal poem that addresses the anger and grief Shaughnessy feels in the aftermath of this traumatic birth. Some of her fury is directed at the people who have failed her—incompetent doctors, unsympathetic friends (“stay-at-home moms who had once / been talented but were now pretending / they were not in order ‘to raise a family’ / and to slide into inanity”)—but much of it is directed at the author herself:

Cal. I can blame just about anyone for what
happened to you, but ultimately it was my job
to get you into this world safely. And I failed.

The Andromeda of the title is an imagined world, a place where we get to do things over:

When we get to Andromeda, Cal,
you’ll have the babyhood you deserved,
all the groping at light sockets

and putting sand in your mouth
and learning to say Mama and I want
and sprinting down the yard

as if to show me how you were leaving
me for the newest outpost of Cal.

Shaughnessy oscillates between this imagined world and reality, between acceptance and regret, and she is never afraid to confront the torment of the “what-ifs.” The two sections of the book work beautifully together, with the first part’s Plath-like chilly brilliance—all language play and internal rhyme—balancing the latter section’s more impassioned tone. And if, like me, “soppy books about motherhood” are on your UGH list, don’t worry, you have nothing to fear from Our Andromeda; Shaughnessy’s brilliance, rage, and humor keep the collection from straying into motherhood-is-magical! territory (“Stop belonging to me so much, face-head,” she writes). Here are a couple more excerpts from the out-of-this-world Our Andromeda:

from Liquid Flesh

I’m a mother now.
I run to the bathroom, run
to the kitchen, run to the crib

and I’m not even running.
These places just scare up as needed,
the wires that move my hands

to the sink, to the baby,
to the breast are electrical.
I’m in shock.

One must be in shock to say so,
as if one’s own state is assessable,
like a car accident or Minnesota taxes.

A total disaster, this sack of liquid
flesh which yowls and leaks
and I’m talking about me

not the baby. Me, this puddle
of a middle, this utilized vessel,
cracked hull, divine

design. It’s how it works. It’s how
we all got here. Deform
following the function . . .

But what about me? I whisper
secretly and to think,
around these parts used to be

the joyful place of sex,
what is now this intimate
terror and squalor.

My eyes burned out at three a.m. and again
at six and eleven. This is why the clock
is drowning, as I said earlier.

I’m trying to explain it.
I repeat myself, or haven’t I already?
Tiny self, along with a tiny self.

* * *

From Artless

No poetry. Plain. No
fresh, special recipe
to bless.

All I’ve ever made
with these hands
and life, less

substance, more rind.
Mostly rim and trim,
meatless

but making much smoke
in the old smokehouse,
no less.

Fatted from the day,
overripe and even
toxic at eve. Nonetheless,

in the end, if you must
know, if I must bend,
waistless,

to that excruciation.
No marvel, no harvest
left me speechless,

yet I find myself
somehow with heart,
aloneless.

With heart,
fighting fire with fire,
fightless.

Remembering Albert Huffstickler

Party hats on, Malverinos, because tonight is a very special night at Malvern Books… we’re hosting a birthday celebration in honor of the late, great Albert Huffstickler!

PartyReadings will start around 7pm, but come by early for a lil’ honky-tonk cabaret with TOPSY. And for those of you who are sadly unfamiliar with the much-loved Huff, here’s a primer to get you started…

Albert HuffsticklerAlbert Huffstickler (December 17, 1927 – February 25, 2002) wasn’t born in Austin (his bio simply states “born in Texas”), but he lived in Austin in his later years, and became a local literary legend. You could usually find him in a café in Hyde Park, decked out in suspenders, smoking, drinking coffee, and working on a poem. (Rumor has it he wrote a poem a day, and his impressive publication record—four full-length collections, plus hundreds of poems published in chapbooks and journals—lends veracity to the story.) He was a two-time winner of the Austin Book Awards, and in 1989 the state legislature formally honored him for his contribution to Texas poetry. In May 2013, a new Hyde Park green space at the corner of 38th and Duval Streets was named Huffstickler Green in his honor. Huff was a friend and inspiration to many, and everyone who knew him talks of his kindness, his honesty, and his passionate support for local literature. Austin Community College English professor W. Joe Hoppe, who will be reading tonight, describes his friend and mentor as “a great encourager of poetry.” We’re delighted to be raising a glass in honor of Huff tonight, and we hope you’ll join us.

For more on Huffstickler’s work, I recommend checking out Issa’s Untidy Hut, the poetry blog of Lilliput Review, as they have a ton of Huff loveliness to be enjoyed. Meanwhile, here are a few of my favorite Huffstickler poems…

Laundromat

This is how Hopper would have painted it:
the line of yellow dryers
catching the sunlight from the broad window.
Man with his hand reached up to the coin slot,
head turned to the side as though reflecting,
woman bent over the wide table
intent on sorting,
another standing hands at her side, looking off—
as though visiting another country;
each thing as it is,
not reaching beyond the scene for his symbols,
saying merely, “On such and such a day,
it was just as I show you.”
Each person, each object, static
but the light a pilgrim.

 * * *

We Forget

We forget we’re
mostly water
till the rain falls
and every atom
in our body
starts to go home.

 * * *

The Song

My brother and I sang and sang
growing up, sang love songs from
operettas, sang pop, sang country
western. We didn’t think about
it, we just sang because we liked
the way the sound came out of us,
didn’t think about the words, just
sang because it felt good to have
music come out of your body and
we tied our feelings to the music
and let it all go like a kite
sailing up, up out of sight. No
use asking us why, we just did
it, just sang and sang. And
sang our way then into another
time where music was scarce and
it was harder to find the music
to tie the feelings to. I don’t
remember when I stopped singing.
Jack stopped when he died, not
forty yet, still a young man.
Tonight I sit and think about time
and music and where people’s lives
go and it’s night and there’s a
small breeze and I think about
people like Pavarotti and Louis
Armstrong and Ray Charles, singers
who can put people’s joy and
sorrow into music and sing it
for them and I believe to my soul
that there is no more wonderful
thing to do in this world than
to sing and that of all the things
in the world a man can do, there
is no more honorable occupation.

Bat City Bounty

We love to fill our Malvernian shelves with poetry and fiction from across the country and around the world, but we’re also rather partial to a little local lit. Below, a few of our recent Made-in-Austin poetry acquisitions…

Local Authors

Until You Electrocute Everyone and Into The Ropes by Deva Haney. Two candid, funny, and ferocious collections that demand to be read aloud. We’re also pleased to note that Haney is a friend to pirates.

Diamond Plate by W. Joe Hoppe. Coolly contemplative poetry that pulls off the tricky task of being both boldly experimental and instantly accessible. Hoppe teaches creative writing at Austin Community College, and he sounds like a bloody inspiring bloke.

Restless Astronomy by Michael Gilmore. The peripatetic Mr. Gilmore has lived in China, New York, and Iowa, but now calls Austin home. With startling imagery and sly asides, Restless Astronomy deftly lures the reader into an imagined world that feels both intensely personal and hauntingly familiar.

Holy Hell

Only three more sleeps till Saturday, when you can stuff your alarm clock in the back of the closet and sleep until the cat drools in your eye! Hurrah! Meanwhile, the very best accompaniment to the midweek blues is an existentially terrifying poetry collection, and we have just the thing: Holy Land by Rauan Klassnik.

Holy LandHoly Land is a surreal and startling collection of short prose poems by a writer who describes his oeuvre as “dark, sexual puffery, blah, blah.” HTMLGIANT’s J.D. Scott writes that each Klassnik poem is like “a tiny, dimly lit room with the air running out,” and this is an apt description: Holy Land is most definitely not for literary wusses. If you faint at the mere mention of blood (or children in ditches or amputated feet), please return to your Improving Verses About Flowers and leave Holy Land for those folks who like their poetry to give ’em a short, sharp kick in the soul.

Here’s a review from Goodreads that rather proves this point:

I don’t really understand the poems included in this book. … These poems make me think of dreams, bad dreams, the weird, dark, disturbing bad dreams I start having in summer when my bedroom gets too hot at night. These poems make me uncomfortable in the same way heat induced bad dreams make me uncomfortable. Shudder!

I concur with this poor, swooning reviewer in his/her assessment of heat-induced bad dreams—shudder!—but I disagree vis–à–vis disturbing poetry. There’s something comforting in the sharing of a literary nightmare, and disturbing poetry, when it’s good, is very good indeed. And Holy Land is very good. Exampleatron, hook us up!

His voice is a tiny flash of light. A lighthouse pulsing. An orchid hanging. Waterfalls and almond trees. The sky’s pressed down: one eye blue, the other pink. He’s been dead for months. Hard black fetal skin. His voice dogshit white.

I’m on a cloud floating by and I’ve gone mad but madness flows away in a tall shining work of Art and I’m standing in front of a fountain and the world’s ringing down through me and there are no fields of migrants mixing hair and bone into concrete. Trucks lined up and ready. Cups of cold coffee, a Rolex and a crucifix. A girl on a payphone begging.

Talking to God’s like jerking off. You strain in the dark for years, but then a fuse gets lit, and people come screaming out of the fire. They land in the streets, their arms and legs blown off. A man on a horse tips his hat. Marilyn holds down her dress. In the charred air, angels hang.

Thanks, Exampleatron! But I’d prefer to hear from the author himself, preferably while he’s sitting in a bathtub with a pink wig on his head…

Nice work! If you like what you hear, stop by 613 West 29th Street and we’ll hook you up with a little midweek Klassnik. Final word goes to this lady:

Shame, Envy, Otters

A very merry Monday to you all, and I do hope your weekend was full of autumnal good cheer. First up: a hearty thank you to all the lovely people who stopped by our table at the Texas Book Festival—it was great to meet you, and we trust you’ll enjoy reading and sniffing your spiffy new books.

Coping with EmotionsAnd now let’s get the week off to a sunny and self-improving start with Dina Del Bucchia’s Coping with Emotions and Otters. A poetic piss-take on the self-help genre, Coping offers a wry and surprisingly poignant guide to identifying and managing our pesky emotions. Sadness, for instance, should never be underestimated: “Pay the guy / in the basement of the mall / to engrave your dreams /  in black metal bound to semigloss cherry.” And if you’re experiencing a little jealously, it might help to undermine the object of your envy:

Take a friend’s mother out
to lunch at that place
she always pines for—
rustic bread, sharp dill,
clotted spreads. Talk
about things she loves—
weekends away, popular 
news anchors, other people’s
problems. Pretend your friend
is the one who forgot to feed the fish,
forgot to vote, forgot
to mail a birthday card
to her own grandmother.
Use your friend’s name
only in reference
to recent sex
crimes.

Other emotions discussed include anger (“Cure cancer and keep it to yourself / Don’t spread a word of it. Walk / through hospital wards beaming”) and shame (“become friends with preteens / who share your interests”). And there are also paths to happiness (an emotion accurately defined as “soft lighting, WiFi connection, rat poison”):

Wear bare legs
in the cold.
Stand against
weather, moisture.
Carouse in
rush of chill.
Red welts
badges of honor.

Coping is funny, smart, and satirical without being snarky. If you’re keen to better manage your pathetic sadness and rage while also learning about the lifestyles of celebrity otters—and I think we can all agree the world needs more Mustelidaen verse—you should stop by Malvern Books and pick up a copy of Coping. And speaking of important otters, here’s a little scholarly discourse for you.

To Be Imagined

Wallace StevensAmerican poet Wallace Stevens was born on this day in 1879. Stevens is now considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth-century—renowned curmudgeon Harold Bloom once called him “the best and most representative American poet of our time”—but he received little acclaim in his lifetime. As a poet, Stevens was primarily concerned with the power of the imagination to transform our surroundings. (And if, like Stevens, you worked for almost forty years as an insurance executive with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, you might be pretty keen on imaginatively transforming your surroundings, too.)

Stevens is mostly remembered for poems like The Emperor of Ice-Cream and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, gently mystical works that are often taught in classrooms by writing instructors desperate to foist a little creative thinking on their students (who will find two new ways to describe a blackbird—shiny! evil!—and then immediately resume writing the same stupid story about their best friend’s car accident).

Anecdote of the Jar

However, Stevens was not merely a domesticated daydreamer: he had some fairly feisty views about the dangerous ways in which “the pressure of reality” dulls our powers of imaginative contemplation:

In speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive … A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure of reality of this last degree.

Happy birthday to the prescient Mr. Stevens. Here’s one of my favorite Stevens poems, “The Plain Sense of Things” (and there’s an illustrated reimagining of the poem here):

The Plain Sense of Things

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.