Review of Scraped Knees by Kristine Brown – Michael Rush

Michael Rush has written quite a thorough review of my collection of poems and flash stories. I give Mr. Rush and Forage Poetry great thanks for their time in receiving my work and sharing the goodness others create. Forage just released their last issue. Please give them a visit and peruse the entire archive. The showcase is truly something.

Additionally, if you’re interested in purchasing a signed copy of Scraped Knees, feel free to let me know. Again, thanks for your support. Happy Monday.

++++It would be easy to label Scraped Knees as a collection on growing up. It would be easy to see its poetry and prose about someone finding their voice, then connect it to your own upbringing and drift back into personal moments of discovering the world. Yet for me Scraped Knees is much more; it is a book of contrasts. A collection of poetry and prose which can speak from the perspective of the young, but do it with a more mature voice. Wonder is mixed with rationality and realism. Expectation mingles with disappointment. We experience some lighter moments, but there is a weight to carry with us both before and after that lightness.

++++Anemic Disappointment would be an example of that weight as the speaker’s uncoordinated efforts are further highlighted by her Mother’s reminder of her own athletic exploits. Yet it’s not the rebukes or even the…

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Starlit Speculation – This is Charlie Zero

Introduced to Björk and Tori Amos at the age of eleven, and remembering echoes of of a swarming crowd as Shirley Manson stated, “I’m only happy when it rains,” I’m difficult to unnerve through words, medical terminology, and images I hope will prompt more than just some kind of lucid, false, epileptic seizure.

Perhaps the challenge in impressing me lies in my affinity for the experimental, cracked into three large shards. Charlie Zero’s This Robot Dreams Inside a Plastic Soul stirred my intrigue as the sun prods an amusement park worker to wriggle in his four-legged, alpaca wool suit. I snuggled into the blankets covering my macintosh red futon, took a minute or so between pieces, and thought, “Damn, Charlie. I’d imagine LSD does come to a halt, but I’m not quite ready.” For the record, I’ve never tried LSD.

Charlie’s writing reminds me of wind chimes that clang out of nowhere in the summer heat, doorbell melodies that warn me I’m entering the home of a prolifically artful eccentric. I don’t know what to expect, conversing with a local historian about “tarot-cards & playgirl magazines” I’ve never taken more than a glimpse at, or a “virtual console” commanding fine-tuning by those long departed. The allusions run unbridled, as read in “Witchcraft Acidhead 23.” Grammatical devices, the marriage of the supernatural Ouija with universal Apple products, and an image of Edgar Allen Poe stuffing the macabre into his DDT heart, It seems anything and anyone stands around to grab the microphone, announcing standard grievances, pointing out that CNN should be taken with a grain of salt, that institutionalization confines more than young girls admitted out of parents’ concerns that they may be too hormonal. Charlie Zero assembles dismantlement to encourage us to question what’s heard and said, while navigating local alleys, gathering others interested in communal innovation while acknowledging the stagnancy that sets our minds on fire.

Charlie toys with form and language like people I see on the Travel Channel acquainting themselves with flower arrangements. Nothing’s quite symmetrical, yet the juxtaposing hues encapsulate readers in a curious glow. “I didn’t know this was a medical term! What could it possibly mean? Would I hear it at my next doctor’s appointment?” These are questions I asked myself as I breathed in the smoke trailed by thirty-five poems.

Now, back to the three large shards. This Robot Dreams Inside a Plastic Soul invites you to do your own research, opening dictionaries, finding encyclopedias at your nearest discount bookstore which directly pertain to Twentieth Century pop culture, and beyond. The collection offers more than trance, illustrates complexities more intricate than tangled arms and legs in an urban club scene. In Charlie’s synthesis of the bright, historical, and contemporary, we read what it means to be eclectic. Lines such as “Arachnid gods/ registered virtuoso/ T-minus 1” sends us jolting, neck hairs raising as if our fingers almost pricked the shine of an open lamp socket. Again, I emphasize eccentricity, but not as a term describing a human. The poetry collection, though fierce in its delivery, does not settle itself centrally. See Charlie’s work as an ever spinning globe, continental tenants shouting insults they’ll one day take back, digging their fingers into the clay on which they stand, giving Pangaea one more chance.

This Robot Dreams Inside A Plastic Soul ignites fury, anxiety, and hope in the midst of a changing society that in retrospect, may not have changed so drastically should we consider human faltering. Nonetheless, it is a thoughtful read, pushing us to wonder what we truly think about the world and people who cross our path as we walk, confined by our Ziplock exteriors.

Charlie Zero’s collection of poems remains available in paperback, through Paypal. Do follow his adventures in writing at his blog, filled with starlit speculation.

Simply Extraordinary – Misfortune and Strife in Steven Baird’s Ordinary Handsome

ordinaryhandsomeiiI first read Ordinary Handsome a little more than a year ago. Admittedly, I felt quite overwhelmed upon finishing the book, giving it a second, third, and fourth read. Not only did the book leave me breathing deeply, scouting for the aroma of old black tea, the imprisoning honesty of spilled liquor, salty dried blood staining dusty fabric, and the freshness of limes that serve disturbingly more than just a culinary purpose. Steven Baird’s novel demanded my full attention, and even though I was absolutely absorbed each time I read it in around five hours, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. His writing is exquisite, the subject matter is temporally relevant, and there are characters to both pity and loathe. Ordinary Handsome, in its grit and precision, tells of extraordinary misfortune and strife.

Baird illustrates the backdrop poetically. As we walk through the streets of Handsome, Oklahoma, it’s accepted that this is a town from someone’s childhood, or a town only heard of through family storytelling. The gravel scrapes beneath our feet, sweat rolls down our foreheads as we watch farmers toil to barely last the year, and we catch ourselves gagging, perhaps flinching, as we pass the bar owned by Henry Wasson, a simple man with a precocious son and memories that both comfort and haunt. In narrating the hardships of the townspeople, Wasson’s dilemmas, and the impact of his deeds on those around him, Baird clearly deliberates, word by word. While he abandons quotation marks, it is simple to discern who says what, and what was committed by whom. Perhaps Baird does this to further accentuate the bareness of an impoverished, dying town. Perhaps Baird does this to call for our attention, to read and re-read. The story, though structurally fragmented, comes together. But one has to watch for every reed to weave that compact basket.

Most impressive are the contrasts presented throughout the story. A bar packed with regulars and full glasses that actually faces financial collapse. The hint of a bra spotted on a young girl during a date years ago, a young man eventually choosing a bra that the girl will wear in her coffin. A boy who toys with grapes “like a kitten,” though his actions and father are far from innocent. The undeniable presence of families, however incomplete. While women make brief appearances throughout the story, there lacks a maternal element. Ultimately, we witness the struggles, codependency, and eventual severance of ties between fathers and their lone sons. Especially striking is the presence of a mathematics museum in a town that seems to forsake intellectuality. We have a father who manages a bar, who can’t comprehend the meaning of integers, and a son who seeks comfort in numbers and their certainty. While Handsome, Oklahoma appears dry, rusted, and cyclically unambitious, horrific crimes transpire. The darkness of such deeds is inarguable, though the consequences that follow are so numerous that the thought of what only could happen drives a man to madness.

Ordinary Handsome is more than an account of poverty, alcoholism, and damage rooted in human imperfection. It is a psychological thriller, a coming-of-age story, a dramatic read that one could adapt to an accessible play or film. Read it in the rain, twilight, or heat. Read it several times if the story perplexes you. Steven Baird has crafted more than a lush narrative, but moreover, a warning of the harm we all could inflict under desperation’s duress.

Ordinary Handsome is available on Amazon, via Kindle.

Sweet and Conscientious – Poetic RITUals by Ritu Bhathal

51OZQmeTjcL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_“…there is something for most situations.”

Oh, is that right?

If we respect convention, my age warrants questions, about the longterm boyfriend I do not have, the left ring finger pale as eggshells, and what I would do upon receiving a call from the daycare director after baby’s first brawl. In the barest sense, during these conversations, I answer with “Not yet.” Motherhood is foreign to me, but projects in my planner beg for attention. My obligations are limited, and as of late, my deepest conversations consist of “goo-goo”s and “coo-coo”s with none other than my two cats, George Batman Michael and Tabby.

Ritu Bhathal has a cat. Children, a husband, a profession commanding compassion and patience. She maintains a blog, But I Smile Anyway. Here, we find authenticity. In the giddy, frazzling, and sometimes tear-worthy moments of a life we have encountered sometime before. The bus monitor, teacher, neighbor next door. A woman I would like to meet on my sidewalk, share conversations with, and look up to as a model of bustling positivity.

I mention again my aversion to self-help books. Often times, I fail to relate to the sources of frustration discussed, sources that have brewed others’ anxieties and inner tensions that I grapple with daily. I sense some condescension, a reminder of “I’m twenty years older than you.” However, filled with the cries, sighs, groans, and laughter of a busy life I have yet to experience, Poetic RITUals does not condescend in the slightest. Rather, Bhathal’s book comforts.

A child learning to blow bubblegum. A working woman keeping a home. A dash of redolent romance sweet like hazelnut creamer. Contemporary issues such as prejudice, and some self-deprecating humor. The ways men perplex, and the ruddy grace by which they captivate girls in their hopeful youth. The author’s pieces, thoughtfully constructed in their rhyme and concise sincerity. Some bits remind me of well-written sitcoms from the ’90s that some of us can re-enact, word by word. There are sections of sentimentality, verses that left me thinking of the magic experienced each time I journey with Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina. Undoubtedly, Bhathal’s collection is diverse, playful, enticing in its humor and emotion, and most admiringly, real. Girls in their twenties yet to wed may surely delight in her warmth and wisdom, verses appropriate for morning reading before the drive to work. It would not be farfetched to predict that grandfathers will smile, leafing through musings about chocolate cake, the restlessness of young children, and a matter-of-fact, personalized rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Rarely do I come across books about family life written without the drippings of sappy vanilla that leave our tummies and thoughts aching from overcompensation. Bhathal loves her children, her husband, her cat, her life, and daily sights. But the love is composed, neither preachy or theatrical. Self-aggrandizement, child worship, and Instagram shots of couples smiling too widely have no place in RITUals. But know that at a point, perhaps two, three, or more, one may be left smiling upon completion of this work. Through rain’s residual mud puddles, the teasing of daylight saving time, the loss of those we cherish and squabbles between people with whom we live, Bhathal encourages us to seize the moment. To reflect, learn, and smile any which way life takes us.

Poetic RITUals, in its gentle honesty, is now available on Amazon, through Kindle or paperback. 

Construction in Expression – Holding Pattern/Joyride

“… it’s easier to get ahead over the corpses of those who disrespect you than it is to ride their coattails.”

I’ve recently found myself interested in compiling quotes. Oftentimes, they are silly, nonsensical, and essentially, fodder to save whatever tiny notebook I have on my nightstand that’s about to hit the trashcan. Lately, I’ve been scribbling down words of an angry Mel Gibson. As some of you know, I have what the socially prudent would call a fiery temperament. Aside from verbal assaults and racial slurs dismissed in a discussion on alcohol, Mel has some pretty interesting things to say. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he professes to “murder inanimate objects.” The ability is so impressive that we should watch him “choke a toaster in the morning.”

It’s all quite amusing, but are the rants constructive? If I were to compile a book titled Quotes of Mel Gibson, would it be anything more than a list you find in your supermarket’s Cosmopolitan that details sixty-nine ways to please your man with a chocolate eclair? I highly doubt it.

Recently, I was privileged with reading and assembling over sixty poems from J. Walter Falconer’s blog, Holding Pattern/Joyride. Some pieces are worthy of an aching chest, others read like battle scenes from fantasy novels I’m too intimidated to open, but all the poems saturate, ideal for any weather and worthy of multiple re-reads. I’ve found myself doing this quite a bit, visiting the blog, admiring the precision in Falconer’s stanzas, and more so, reminding myself that my issues, both internal and interpersonal, aren’t unsolvable and can certainly be articulated in less than abstract ways.

I’ll reiterate that Holding Pattern/Joyride is more than a poetry blog. It’s a collection of writing that likely appeals to an ample span of readers. Students, nature lovers, hunters, enthusiasts of health, medicine, and psychological complexities. And let’s not forget those angsty people like myself who need a bit of a grounding. My obstacles aren’t necessarily insurmountable, and the grievances and ambivalences I clumsily attempt to juggle aren’t exactly sixteen-pound bowling balls.

If time allows, I highly recommend you read the blog from first entry to the most recent. Holding Pattern/Joyride is more than a glimpse into the happenings of a poet. Here, we have a cancer survivor embarking on patient advocacy, a friend with advice regarding relationships gone sour, the cool guy at the coffee shop who gives me the gritty details of what it’s like to be in grad school, and how working in a lab isn’t to be glamorized. There’s a poignant bit about the kind impartiality of animals we hold dear. As someone who frequently finds solace in the company of other friend’s cats as I save for my own, I can only smile at the declaration of “No prejudice here, no sir,” followed by an entry on therapy animals.

Indeed, not everything’s permanent, and the idea of the world constantly fleeting makes me pretty anxious. Self-identity is often muddled, and still, at twenty-five, my coping skills need work. Falconer’s blog reminds me of this, but not so patronizingly. It’s kind of like a self-help book, but better. A compilation of tips, poetic, detailed, and structured with a purpose that directs me away from the sinkhole angst can sometimes lead us to, including recorded arguments we’ll likely soon regret.

Swiftly Paced Intricacy – Oak and Mist by Helen Jones

Available on Amazon via Kindle or paperback.

Available on Amazon via Kindle and paperback.

Admittedly, I’m not what you’d call extremely well-read. That being said, aside from the first installment of The Lord of the Rings series, and the Harry Potter books that I’ve rarely ever re-read, I have hardly read any fantasy. Perhaps it’s all too intimidating, with its multiple worlds, factions, alliances, alter-egos, and allusions to mythology and other things I find elaborately rich. While I’ve intended to, I’ve never really given attention to the YA genre. It takes a skilled and enthusiastic writer to draw me into such works, and with Oak and Mist, Helen Jones does the job.

We see predestination’s lingering hold as Alma faces a tall order. Ambeth, a world outside the familiar, is threatened by an imbalance between Light and Dark. One does not choose the faction he is born into, and ultimately, one is not granted volition to shift, even in the unlikely presence of a desire to do so. Caleb, Alma’s friend, makes this clear as he dissuades her emotions for a boy from the wrong end of the spectrum.

Jones presents a world that I found highly believable, intricate though uncomplicated. Ambeth is lush with pleasantries, elegant party wear, a hierarchy and party scenes that warmly remind me of the Royal Diaries series. Alma, quiet though brave and resolute, reminded me so much of my younger self, overly impressed with the outwardly beautiful and concerned of other’s perceptions. She’s like a snow globe; you can sense when something unsettles her, whether it regards the dangerous, the lustful, or simply, the possibility that she has wounded a friend, however lacking the intention to. Her friendship with Caleb is something most of us have had, along with exasperating conversations about whether That Guy is worth dating.

While I found descriptions of Alma’s infatuation to be gratuitous and sweetly tedious to read, I was impressed with Jones’s integration of the conventional human world with that of contentious Ambeth. The idea of hybrid individuals and half-siblings isn’t new, though I appreciated the dialogue regarding acceptance of one’s blood, and awareness of one world over another. At several points throughout the novel, what appear to be gaps are eventually sealed. The story itself is considerably fast-paced to where one may not acknowledge that something is amiss. However, upon this realization, readers can appreciate that few things mentioned in Oak and Mist could be dismissed as trivial.

Oak and Mist details what I’d expect in the YA genre: formative relationships, both romantic and platonic, familial bonds, and reconciliation between how one would like things to be and how things actually are. Events and relationships are presented so cohesively to where the book could well stand on its own, though the detail in thoughts, interactions, and transferrals between Ambeth and the world in which we readers live leaves much to be predicted and returned to. Delightfully, Oak and Mist is just the first book of the Ambeth Chronicles, as Ms. Jones has just finished its followup, No Quarter. I anticipate the second book to be just as enjoyable.

With all being said, I should really give some genres more of a solid read.

Postgrad Indulgence by an Outdoor Elevator – $5 Catfish at Lone Star Cafe

I chose my current residence with the goal of saving money to further pursue my endeavors. Though perseverance in a whole week of miserly doesn’t exactly nurture a calm that facilitates a productive workweek, or weekends that leave you dreading and anticipating the upcoming Monday.

Iced Starbucks with coasters made by local artist and sold at the Texas Folklife Festival, 2015.

Iced Starbucks with coasters made by local artist and sold at the Texas Folklife Festival, 2015.

Downtown’s potentially expensive. I realize the Starbucks a minute from work charges a little more, and “little” adds up to a good twenty bucks, if mainstream macchiatos are your thing. I also realize that amidst the quiet dives hiding behind salt rocks and contemporary abstract hotel sculptures, good deals can greet in the open. And if you’re working Downtown, a fulfilling though affordable Friday lunch can feed your weekend excitement A thing to look forward to on Mondays as you conquer your workweek.

I’m raving about the five dollar catfish buffet at Lone Star Cafe, off Losoya Street, by McDonald’s and Fuddruckers.

For some, Lone Star is a bit hard to find, but my first week of training, it was all coworkers and supervisors could recommend. On Fridays. No one ever asked if those in my cohort or myself were “fish people,” though I’m aware catfish has a tendency to polarize, depending on how it’s prepared. Breaded, blackened, seasoned, plain.

I typically say “meh” when it’s fried. Not at Lone Star.

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I was informed it was a “catfish buffet,” so I thought I’d walk into a room filled with fine wood tables boasting heaps of golden batter on silver trays, livened with the glow of a modest flame and made approachable by five or six pairs of scattered tongs. This is what I’m used to when dining buffet style.

But as you walk down the street, there’s a host that greets you by an elevator painted white. You’re offered the choice of dining indoors, or out. I live near the unpopulated side of the Riverwalk, and already accustomed to what I call confetti-ized (or confetti-sized) tourism (the authentic calling your name in crowds of the gimmicky, and vice versa), I thought it refreshing to sit from above, look at the trees, and note all the colors down below.

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Fortunately, my first trip was nothing like this past weekend, bogged down with flash flood warnings. I visited in early March.

I was told by the waiter that simply, I finish my plate, and he brings another. While I readied myself for a greasy feast all too iconic of Long John Silver’s, my fish arrived easily managed. You’re left to enjoy several pieces of modestly sized fish with a whiteness and flakiness that left me thinking, “This isn’t American catfish.” But it is.

IMG_1395Maybe, in limited experience, I’ve just had crappy catfish. I realized I arrived a bit judgmental. The admittance was repeated as I bit into a sweet roll. They’re not frozen.

In training, we were given fifteen minutes extra when walking out for lunch. So I used it the best I could, warming up, studying branches, craning my neck to hear what people were laughing about at the outdoor bar several steps down.

I didn’t have to ask, and my plate was replaced. And replaced. And replaced.

Actually, I sat through three plates of catfish, several inhalations of dough rightly baked, and playful dips in tartar sauce.

I can be iffy on tartar sauce. And restaurants. Tourism. Work.

I fished out my tip, feeling that my bill, in total, ought to have been around $14.99. It was a little over six after tax. And of course, add the tip that I prefer giving in dollar bills, quarters, and dimes.

Truly, there are places to foster my frugal hesitance. Some I’ve passed, everyday, unaware without the prodding of those who like me, dance for Friday, and sulk on Monday mornings.