A curated literary guide

Week #31 / 31st July – 6th August, 2017

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Sunday Review: Sound of Snow Falling

a graphic novel from Maggie Umber

[ 2dcloud / 2017 / 104 pp ]

I dedicate this book to the Great Horned Owl couples whose lives taught me what it means to be an owl[.]

So ends Maggie Umber’s wordless look at the world of great-horned owls. Charged with careful realism, this book—published by independent press 2dcloud, which specializes in comics—is beautiful. The quiet is palpable, the pacing is perfect, and the glimpse at the life of a pair of owls is all too brief. It is difficult to give a genre to this book—textless, except for the introduction and a brief personal essay from Umber that frame it, Sound of Snow Falling is an experience.

Visual poetry is familiar to many – but what happens when visual poetry loses text altogether? Is it still poetry? I’d like to think so, as poetry is less about content and more about intent. However, poetry comics are still few and far between. As a subgenre of comics, most are self-published, some put out by independent publishers, fewer still formed into being by big-name publishing entities. I don’t believe it as a genre has gained any kind of traction as of yet, but these books do exist. Again, it is difficult to characterize them, but to me, anything poetic takes its time. It’s about images, the slowing down of a moment, of using complex ideas to describe something otherwise simple. Poetry, in an effort to create an image, uses evocative language—or uses familiar language in a surprising way. The series of images, paneled like a traditional comic, create a narrative that would be impossible to depict with just one picture—despite that all-to familiar saying.

Umber’s careful look at the life of a pair of owls attempting to survive and raise their chicks is akin to a nature documentary, but without the scientific jargon and attempt to educate. This comic allows the owls to just exist. By not offering any explanation for their behaviour, the reader is left with nothing but their own prior knowledge. Perhaps you knew a lot about owls; perhaps you knew nothing. Either way, your perspective on the bird has changed. Most stunning is the page that depicts the waning and waxing of the moon in time with the development of an owl chick still in-shell. The transition of the moon, mirrored by the growth of the chick, highlights the harmony that exists in nature despite all its violence and confusion. But even dubbing the natural world “violent” and “confused” comes from a uniquely human bias—these words go beyond what most animals, including owls, can comprehend. It is the human that interprets, that creates the story.

Unlike Mary Oliver, an American poet whose idyllic look at nature (including the owl) is an oft-romanticized, very human perspective, Umber’s realism invites the reader to become part of the scenery. Somehow, Umber doesn’t allow room for the human gaze, the biased interpretation of animal life and livelihood: instead, readers are presented with the owls as they are. This way, a reader can be amazed, frightened, moved; they may find beauty or ugliness in the owl’s misshapen nest, or their startling eyes; or perhaps there are even some readers who feel more for the raccoon or the rabbit that are so unlucky as to come in contact with these birds of prey.

What can’t be denied—no matter your experience of Umber’s careful reflection of the world—is how beautiful the book is overall. Unlike the crystal-clear shots of an animal documentary, Umber’s art is stylized with heavy, often rough brush strokes, and the dark colours cause the scenery and the subjects—the owl pair—to blend together. The effect is immediate—you truly no longer feel like a viewer so much as you do a participant. It’s easy to pretend you are a part of the scenery, easy to be as akin to the owls as you are to the trees, the ponds, the rabbit they catch and eat. The title—Sound of Snow Falling—ultimately ties it back to poetry for me. Umber’s depiction of the silence and grace these birds embody is expressed in this lyrical phrase, something you can only understand after watching the lives of the owls unfold.

Visit 2dcloud to purchase the book.

Reviewer / Terry Abrahams

Five Things with Carl Phillips

1. The last thing that made you smile.

Watching my partner try not to have a goofy smile while I took his picture this morning.

2. A secret.

My recipe for linguine with clam sauce has evolved into a secret.

3. The last thing you wrote.

Well the last poem I wrote was a poem I finished a week ago, called “What We Did, Who We Did It With.”

4. Favourite city.

That’s a tough one. My favorite would be a city that I know the ins and outs of, in which case St Louis where I live. Fave city I’d like to know better: Toronto. City in which I imagine my life could be utterly different forever: Venice.

5. What you’d place in a time capsule.

For something from this century, I’d put a couple CDs, Lorde’s latest and a Brad Mehldau CD. Then I’d add a good translation of Chekhov’s plays.

Carl Phillips’s new book of poems, Wild Is the Wind, will be out in January 2018.

Slugs, Soft Meat, & Just One Person

poems from Sara Adams

Marcel Duchamp once stated that “[i]t’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap”, and it’s with this philosophy that I approach erasure poems with such fascination and joy. As a long-time fan of both Stephen King’s work and the craft of found poetry, I enjoy when writers add and subtract new meanings to an established text.

In these three erasure poems by Sara Adams, the story of a literal child-eating monster transforms into something else entirely—in ‘Slugs’, the mind is “like a thousand // slugs”, and ‘Soft Meat’ is darkly comedic in its arrangement of “bad dreams // dressed in corduroys”. The last poem in particular, ‘Just One Person’, is affecting in its resignation and lack of belief. Fun and shocking to read, Adams’s erasure poems personify our fears and anxieties in clever twists much like the master of horror himself.

Visit Dream Pop Press to read the poems.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

funeral for my mama

a poem from Zein Sa’dedin​

I am not myself a poet, but I discuss poetry quite often with my students, whose fever pitch of anxiety about poetry is rivaled only by their terror about math. There are many great writers and poets out there who will take a more elaborate and eloquent analysis of poetry, for today I want only to talk about form. About the poems that revel in the unbound space of words on a page the way that fiction cannot. Poems like Zein Sa’dedin’s ‘funeral for my mama.’ Not a single comma or capital letter breaks the flow of thought. The breath between words stretch wide, a tension assuaged by a break to the next line. The unusual form won’t scare a novice reader away—the poem is understandable, the emotions raw and tender, and in a method that fiction writers don’t usually get to use, the form is a representation of the content; grief fractures the sentences on the page. Every line break, white space, and word supports the sadness so profoundly it becomes, in many ways, a perfect example of the power of poetry.

Visit Breakwater Review to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby


a story from Alvin Park

I dig the hole as she holds the cigar box where my father rests. Her new ring taps against the redwood.

This week I have little flash fiction story for you about family and complicated relationships, and expectations and reality, the way innate differences can leave us prone to rifts, the ground shaky, ready to split apart. Told in fewer lines and words than it seems, Park opens up a window into the life, past and potential future, of the narrator. As much an exercise in brevity, this story also examines the struggles of coming to terms with the conception of others we keep in our minds, and the selves that are presented to us in truth.

The rifle that felt heavy, clumsy in my hands, eventually relinquished from me, his head shaking, but my relief, my shaking fingers, the smoke unfolding from the barrel.

Blood ties, and the relationship between a father and child only further complicates these discrepancies. How do we come to terms with simultaneously loving and hating, respecting and resenting someone that is a part of who we are? There is something impossible about encompassing all of these contradictions, even with all the synonymous things that muddy the water. There is a glimpse of the past, crisp as the cold, the smell of gunpowder in the air, and there is the present: the quiet of the water, the wide open woods. But the note that we are left on is looking forward, warm and comforting; it’s something like light.

Visit L’Éphémère Review to read the story.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

How to Represent Absence

an essay from Albert Goldbarth

Somewhere in John McPhee’s sprawling masterpiece Annals of the Former World, the author describes how, ultimately, it’s impossible for the human brain to conceive of geologic time. Much like the distances that define star systems and universes, geologic time cannot be accurately accounted for within human experience. Those who spend their lives working with rock that’s tens and hundreds of millions of years old, let along billions of years old, are said to sometimes develop a peculiar, out-of-body mindset.

I say all that because Albert Goldbarth’s essay, ‘How to Represent Absence: On Deep Time, Pre-History, and Loss,’ begins at the very edges of human history, with 32,000-year-old cave paintings. The subsequent work is as you’d expect, given the title: a meditation on placing the self within the impossible stretches of time and history, juxtaposed against the sudden death of a dear friend, a death choreographed from the very beginning of the piece that nonetheless lands with a great weight.

Regardless of where your spirituality is located (if anywhere), this sort of meditation is all but sure to nudge your sense of self off its axis, temporarily (or not). To flood the brain with timelines that have no everyday corollary is to attempt to unmoor yourself from the everyday. It’s dizzying, and it can be terrifying to reduce your existence to a dust speck, all on your own. It’s worth it, I promise.

Visit Literary Hub to read the essay.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

What Returns

a poem from Cameron Awkward-Rich

Whenever I’m looking to sort through some issue of desire, I tend to turn to poems, and ‘What Returns’ didn’t disappoint. I love how direct and cheeky the first question is: “I pass my time // in a room that isn’t childhood, but / does that matter?” Here the speaker avoids the room that another version of themself inhabited, but questioning whether that distance matters highlights how they haven’t fully outgrown themself. You can avoid the space and still be closer than you’d like. Yet, this concept could also extend into the fantastic. If we reimagine our childhoods as large rooms that encapsulate our experience, it might be heartbreaking to step in and become re-accustomed to everything we left behind. Or maybe we desperately want to flip through everything and make sense of it. What’s weird about keeping a room just as you left it at a certain age is that you know it can’t hold everything. You know you took things out of it that can never be put back in, and kept things in that you’ll maybe never want or need again. Even if it all was intact, wouldn’t you eventually sort things into keep/destroy based on what you want/need now? This image feels so interesting to me in its seeming impossibility. We seldom leave spaces as they are because we ultimately find them lacking. Yet these lines make me question if reinventing what’s around us actually affects our insides or if it’s just to fool ourselves into thinking we’re better now, that our desires must be different.

The twist of the line breaks especially comes through here: “to not be a tongue in a glass jar / in an ocean.” To be devoid of any real taste is sad, but when enveloped by sea, just cruel. Even when we know we’ll encounter salt, the endless blueness of certain waters makes us want to drink, makes the thirst almost unbearable. The jar protects the tongue from the water that could never fully quench it, but it’s difficult to be surrounded by water (which here can be coded as pleasure) and not have a mouthful. Though it’s not described as such, I always see this tongue either rapidly sliding around in a pool its desire-spit or still at the bottom in its defeat. But sadly, action and inaction still result in separation, so the hopelessness is palpable.

Some of the ending lines continue to bring that lack of intimacy to the forefront: “I become a boy who touches / the back of strangers’ necks / in public— in love with the soft / of his own throat.” One thing I learned from the winters in Boston is that my neck is pretty much always warm, so there’s really never the shock of touching a cold body part and recoiling. It’s an inviting body part that we use to bring someone closer, especially when ours is the bait. This mirroring gives me a bit of a Narcissus vibe because the speaker’s in love with a softness that can be reflected in everything they desire. Sometimes finding that blink of commonality is all it takes to establish a connection. The entire poem spins on just how dangerous it can be to let desire spill, yet the more we’re filled up, the more conscious we are of ourselves, our bodies, our ways of moving through the world. The tongue swipes and settles for bittersweet.

Visit Verse Daily to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse