Dave Newman’s Two Small Birds (Writers Tribe Books, 2014) John Grochalski
I’ll admit right off the bat that I’m a Dave Newman fan. When I was asked to review Newman’s new book, Two Small Birds (Writers Tribe Books, 2014), I jumped at the chance. I still can’t tell you why. I’m not a book reviewer, as will be evidenced by this piece. I know what I like and most of the time I can’t tell you why I like it. It has a feel or a vibe. So far be it from me to tell you what you’re going to like, right? But something about having the chance to express my fandom and adulation for Dave Newman’s work really struck me. I wanted the guy’s words to slug you as they do for me.
Two Small Birds tells the story of Dan Charles (our hero from Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children) in his younger and more vulnerable years. Dan wants to be a poet. Dan wants to write words and have them matter. But the fault lies not within his drive or talent, but in being born into and of blue collar American stock. There is no room for art in America and Dan is quickly coming to realize this. This is the slow erosion of a dream at too young a time. This is life both desperate and unrealized and unformed. It is a blur of cheap drafts and mixed drinks in bars. It is a blur of fuck buddies giving fast food salvation. It is English lit and writing courses in offshoot university campuses, low-paying jobs, money worries, and shithole apartments infinite.
The novel is about truth and need. And it’s not just Dan who’s floundering in this environment. There’s his brother John. John is a few years removed from Dan, out of college with barely a savings account, maxed out credit cards, and the endless black hole of college debt. For John more than Dan, there is a hopelessness that is already made manifest in the dearth of opportunity that exists for him. He’s already immersed in the horrors of the work-a-day traps of being on-call almost 24/7 as a sales rep for an industrial company, hunting down machine parts at all hours of the day and night. John needs a plan. Dan needs a purpose or at least a separation from the spinning meat grinder of college and impending ennui. And that’s where the plan to stock and sell high grade industrial wire comes in. But the brothers need capital. So John stays on the job, pushing and plugging away. And Dan…Dan takes to the road as a truck driver.
One of the things that I love about Dave Newman’s writing is the way that he has his characters interact. There is a flow of dialogue between two people that swims in lyrical bliss at times in his work, albeit a rough-edged lyric. Dan may read Whitman and Sandburg, but he and his ilk talk like the guys putting a few back at the local tavern. But what’s more poetic than that? Some of my favorite moments of the novel are when Dan and John are together hatching plans in bars, or talking on the telephone when Dan is out in desolate America all hopped up on fast food, caffeine, amphetamines, and alcohol, trying his best to make it happen. There is a genuine banter between the brothers. There is a genuine love and rivalry and care that comes across when they speak. It’s comedic and stilted and brotherly, and has a pent-up violence at times that can only exist between flesh and blood.
Dan’s other major connect is Becca, a girl he met at wedding and starts seeing shortly before he goes on the road. Initially, I had some problems with Becca. She seemed to be everyone’s hot fuck buddy willing to burp a burger and shake her little ass all in the same moment. But she grew on me, and maybe it’s because I’m a red-blooded male. Or maybe it’s because what saves the character for me is in the ways that Newman has her interact with Dan and in the ways that he has Dan think about her, describe Becca, with lines like this: Becca, who I hated, who I loved as much as I could for a woman I hated, just comes across as pure honesty in my book. Especially if you’ve ever been deeply in lust.
There is a wonderfully playful, sexual, and even hateful banter in the way that Dan and Becca connect and disconnect. He is bold and dismissive and wanting all wrapped into one. And she is stupid and sexually suggestive and seemingly the most brilliant woman in the room in some scenes. And yes, that can border on male sex fantasy…but, hey, stereotypes exist for a reason. And although Becca can straddle the virgin-slut trope at times, Newman carries her with a genius that makes her real and wholly authentic and a character that comes to, in some peculiar way, symbolize for Dan the comforts and people that he misses at home.
I was worried that these interactions would dissipate once Dan was on the road. But I needn’t worry with prose in Dave Newman’s hands. True, the connections Dan makes on the road aren’t as long-lived, fulfilling, or steeped in familial blood as those with Becca and John, but Newman makes the most of the characters that Dan meets while out in America, and gives you a good cross-section of the people shuffling about in all of the freedom and loneliness. Moments with other truckers, waitresses, hookers, and even his dispatcher gleam with the wit and intelligence that I’ve comes to expect when the dialogue gets popping in a Newman novel. They resonate. And that matters.
But what really got me was how much Newman rose to the occasion with this prose. Admittedly, he’s no slouch. Still, it can be hard to have one character out there in roadside America with nothing but his own thoughts and kid fears to keep him grounded. And Newman does a damned fine job with this as well. From contemplating his family to his future to great works of art, the gritty, heart-racing solace of Dan Charles against the American landscape becomes such a factor in this novel that I had to check my own road-weariness when he headed off the highways for some R&R at home. I found myself exhausted and strung out too. I was tired of spools of highways, and wanted to hide beneath my own sheets for days. But it was a dazzling tiredness, folks. And I just don’t get wrapped into prose like this that often.
But this is it, kids. This is my recommendation. Read Dave Newman. Read Two Small Birds and then go and read the rest of this man’s oeuvre. I’m probably going to say more here than a have in the previous one-thousand words, but Dave Newman is my kind of writer. He writes the truth. He takes the hard-scrabble and he makes it sing. Newman takes the ugly and awkward and turns them into swans, man. He writes about the people who need to be written about. You. Me. All of us.
For further readings of Dave Newman: Please Don’t Shoot Anyone Tonight (World Parade Books, 2010), Allen Ginsberg Comes to Pittsburgh, The Beer Factory, Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children (Writers Tribe Books, 2012), and The Slaughterhouse Poems (White Gorilla Press, 2013).
Karen Dietrich’s Girl Years (Matter Press, 2012) Teresa Narey
“You feel time differently when you’re a girl,” writes Karen Dietrich in her second chapbook, Girl Years, a work of compressed nonfiction comprised of sixteen short pieces. According to The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, the online weekly published by Matter Press, compression means “saying more with less,” writing about the small things that live inside of us, and using “lean language.” It is fair to say that Dietrich fulfills all of these expectations. Though our girl years represent only a fraction of our experience, Dietrich demonstrates that they can have the most impact on how we perceive and interact with the world. For Dietrich, girlhood is more than innocence and bows; it is the beginning of fear and desire.
Each piece in Girl Years represents events that shaped Dietrich’s girlhood. She writes with candid whimsy about playground fun and sexual exploration. Like most adolescents, the girl in Girl Years is mature enough to have sexual urges, but young enough not to understand them. In the title piece, girls are “seas of pink” playing ring around the rosy, “hoping the boys will catch up. . . lie us down and peel off our clothes.” In “Clouds,” Dietrich discovers the spot “right there in the middle of [her]” under her underwear, an act she calls “reaching the dew point.” In these instances, Dietrich blends the real with the dreamlike to capture her adolescent self’s existence between knowingness and naïveté.
Desire is a significant theme in Girl Years. We learn a lot about what Dietrich is not allowed to do. She is forbidden to touch the pulley system for the windows in her sister’s bedroom, to part her own hair because her mother says it looks as “crooked as a dog’s hind leg” when she does it, and to stand too close to her mother, who likes her air “clean, free of little girls and [their] milky breath.” Perhaps most telling is what happens when Dietrich gets something she wants. In “Wanting,” she begs her father for red licorice and consumes the entire package, only to throw it up. The image is one of loneliness, with Dietrich “in yellow underwear and nothing else. . . the toothbrushes star[ing] silently all in a row.” Here, fulfilling a desire can mean facing consequences and facing them alone.
In opposition to desire is fear, a feeling embodied most by Dietrich’s mother, whose life is overtaken by superstition. We learn the mother longs for her deceased parents and siblings, seeing them reincarnated in animals, penny candy, clouds, spilled milk, even her own aches and pains. Knowing this helps us make sense of her exchange with Dietrich in “Shooting Stars,” when she tells Dietrich there is a star for every person and so when one falls, someone dies. She leads Dietrich to believe that if you can find the spot where the star falls, “that person you love won’t die after all.” Of course, such a task is impossible, but it does not deter the mother from instilling other strange concepts: eating twelve grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve will bring good luck throughout the year and shaking a purse at the moon will guarantee riches. Such superstitions add order to the mother’s life, but prevent Dietrich from taking risks; Dietrich believes she has to stomp fives times before the garage door closes or take eleven sips from the water fountain before she stops drinking or else. She admits she does not know what “or else” is and being afraid to find out suggests she is experiencing a very limited world.
In the final piece, “True Stories,” we learn the mother had a stressful childhood and wonder why she yearns so much for her family. Just before this, Dietrich expresses her own dissatisfaction with her parents not being much help in her own life. The juxtaposition of these sentiments encourages us to ask: What is it that girls need from their families and why are they having such a hard time? Dietrich attempts a resolution when she writes:
My mother wears stories. They live somewhere inside
her. My mother is a well and these stories spring from her.
She can control when they come out. She gives me a sprinkle
here and there, a small dollop of sadness when I need it,
when I forget about suffering, about our history. Don’t
let yourself be happy, because that’s when it will find you. The
stories will always find me, just as they have always found my
Moments of happiness triggered moments of sadness for the mother. As a girl, Dietrich could not escape this; being in her mother’s care meant that when her mother was unhappy, her feelings affected everyone else’s. Here, the mother cannot escape her past, and the message she sends to her daughter is that she will not be able to either. The mother aches for own girlhood and therefore cannot give her own daughter one of encouragement and love.
Despite all of this, Girl Years is not a story without hope. In “Ballerina,” Dietrich concludes, “I can’t die for my mother. Each of us can only do what we’ve been designed to do. I’m afraid I’ve been designed to live.” By telling these stories, Dietrich is not waiting for them to arise. She is not waiting for them to manifest in spilled beverages or pets or a headache. She is freeing them, and in return, she is freeing herself.
Kristofer Collins’s Local Conditions (Coleridge Street Books, 2015) Don Wentworth
We humans move through space in time, and time as space: Einstein said that. On occasion, there is a dovetailing transcendence of the two, the loud crash of an ashplant stick into a whorehouse chandelier, and all … time … stops: Joyce said that.
All is one, all is one: Buddha said that.
And it passes, in a moment, in an hour, in a day, in a life–and, suddenly, we are back, with a raging hangover, and a sheepish smile, from a glimpse of the divine.
I said that.
From the title, Local Conditions, onward, poet Kristofer Collins offers a deep, calm-abiding meditation of place, a sense of where we are and what we do there, how each influences the other in this pas de duex we call life. Friend, hold on tight to this notion: the emotive landscape of place, the now then-ness of time.
In the opening poem, “I Am Not Kahil Gibran,” a kind of transcendent chord is struck in the literate portrayal of a seemingly ordinary teenage horndog, via the age old come-on known as ‘poetry.’ The poem pivots in the last 4 lines in James Wright fashion, illustrating that words themselves may simultaneously serve as a seduction tool and another Way altogether.
With the door swung open, we enter “My Wife Goes To War With The Deer,” which presents Walt Whitman taking a perfect turn as a
… fat old groundhog that bumbles around sometimes
In the yard just digging up bulbs and setting them
Almost tenderly on the walk
A few lines later, we uncover Ol’ Father Walt as a savior of more men, both literally and figuratively, then many an established faith.
In “City Forge” we stumble into a “country of killers,” where the present seems a transparent palimpsest of the past. “Molina” gives a cosmic specificity to somewhere bordering “West Virginia and The Vatican,” an imaginary locale Dante would surely recognize. In the very next poem, “The Old Stories,” that cosmic POV slips in an out of focus:
When I wake before you
And quietly move through the house, it’s not ours anymore
But some foreign place with a climate all its own, with ways of
Paying for things we haven’t come to yet.
Local Conditions is full of disquieting moments like this, where past, present, and future blend in a miasma of worry and wonder. Sometimes transcendence is in a minor key, a dissembling sort of revelation, the ineluctable nature of change within which we continue to ask the unanswerable, and then ask again. “The Old Stories” concludes with something of an answer, an answer the narrator gives that is a kind of cipher of the question itself:
This place is warm and dark and
Soon you will join me here and share this with me. I have
Not taken a new name, but still I am different.
“Heaven,” too, is a place Dante might recognize, a place entirely removed from the world, another place where past and present converge, “a place where our fathers came,” for a very different, very human nirvana: “There is no time here. / Nothing happens by design. It is wonderful.” That the here is the communal man-cave known as the neighborhood bar is of little consequence: heaven is where you find it. In the poem that follows, “Some Days Are Like This,” the seeming artifice of “Heaven” suddenly has a very real appeal considering “the stupefied face of this stunned planet” and for the fact that “for all / The satellites we throw up there at the stars, not one / of those damned things shows us a better way.”
We move back and forth in both time and space, from Pittsburgh to Baltimore to D.C., the present to the Civil War (“Fix Bayonets”), from child to man, via crayons as swizzle sticks (“The Truth About Abstract Expressionism”). Poem after poem evokes how it is by way of how it was, with an occasional quick left at how it might become. “Anger” shows us a bar that is no heaven, where son is doomed to repeat mistakes father has come to regret, twice slipping from present to past and back to a conclusion as measured as it is damning.
“Ants,” too, deals with places here and gone, places we don’t see under our very noses, places where cockroaches “perch on walls like tiny Picassos,” and, ultimately (as in “I Am Not Kahlil Gibran”) an answer in the form of a lyric question is found glimmering in nature itself, with
A lone ant intrepidly marching across our kitchen floor.
Poem after poem, too many to cite in a cogent review, explores the geography of place and the archaeology of time, the poet searching, looking “through this snarl of foliage” to “find the right constellation, the true north,” like a giant galactic map marked with a miniscule pinpoint with the simple rubric, “You Are Here.”
Here we are, indeed, in a place that Kristofer Collins psychically maps so precisely that we, the readers, can but knowingly nod, gazing off into the middle distance of our very souls.
John Grochalski is the author of The Noose Doesn’t Get Any Looser After You Punch Out (Six Gallery Press 2008), Glass City (Low Ghost Press, 2010), In The Year of Everything Dying (Camel Saloon, 2012), Starting with the Last Name Grochalski (Coleridge Street Books, 2014), and the novel, The Librarian (Six Gallery Press 2013). Grochalski currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he constantly worries about the high cost of everything.
Teresa Narey’s poetry has appeared in several publications, most recently Misfit Magazine, No Tokens, and Pittsburgh City Paper, and anthologized in Extract(s) Volume 2: Poems and Stories 2013 and The 2013 Robert Frost International Poetry & Haiku Contests: Winners and Selected Entries. She has reviewed books for The New Yinzer, Poets’ Quarterly, and The Mom Egg. She has an MFA in creative writing from Chatham University.
Don Wentworth is a Pittsburgh-based poet whose work reflects his interest in the revelatory nature of brief, haiku-like moments in everyday life. His poetry has appeared in Modern Haiku, bottle rockets, bear creek haiku and Rolling Stone, as well as a number of anthologies. His first full-length collection, Past All Traps, was published in 2011 by Six Gallery Press and was shortlisted for the Haiku Foundation's 2011 Touchstone Distinguished Books Award. His second full-length book, Yield to the Willow, is recently out from Six Gallery Press.