Review of Alice in Greenpoint by Iva Ticic

After a brief, unexpected hiatus, Suburban Diaspora’s blog is back this week with three entries to catch us up. These entries will be on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The first entry is on the poetry chapbook Alice in Greenpoint by Iva Ticic from Finishing Line Press, available for pre-order now for its August 14th release date.

The speaker of these poems is honed and honing, marked by an incisive sensuality and intensive attention to quiet domestic details—the smell of spring onions and horseradish, the contours of the surface of an avocado—and also by a hunger, a homeless yearning for a landscape and an identity that she can claim. Even in the familiar spaces in which many of the poems in the first section of the collection, “Listening to the Wind Argue with Frost,” are set, the speaker feels alien, acutely aware of the strangeness that defamiliarizes her own home and her own body, especially in the poems that conclude this section. For example, in “It Is a Joy to Be Hidden, but a Disaster not to Be Found” (the title of which quotes D.W. Winnicott), Ticic’s speaker explores this strangeness, even embracing it by incorporating it into a game, into play:

I am playing hide and seek with myself

in this house where the walls have started leaking

with hollow discontent.

There are so many spots

where I have hidden,

deceiving the opponent

by singing in the oven

and cooking in the bathtub.

Ready or not:

here comes nothingness.

The speaker’s sense of foreignness extends beyond the circumscribed worlds of the body or of the home in “Night Terror,” into the astral and the mythic:

Out of the grainy delicate film of darkness,

a wide-mouthed serpent descends.

She pushes at air, trying to swallow

the moon as a host, render the blackness complete.

My eyes: all sockets and balls,

bulging cranberries in hour of ripeness.

In the second half of the collection, “The Strange Weight,” the speaker’s sense of her own identity gradually transitions from that of foreigner to that of pioneer. Translation, transposition, and transcription are crucial to the geographical and psychological shifts that move these poems. The longing for belonging in this section is perhaps strongest in its first poem, “The Interpreter,” in which the speaker introduces these modes of translation as means of entering—music, conversation, interactions, relationships:

I want to live in the hollow

of your Steinway piano.

Right there beneath the

slender silk of peeled ebony.

I want to become

a part of your conversation

between the pulse

of your fingertip symphony

and the dignified elephant

which you saddle and tame.

I want to learn the dialects

of this foreign arena.

Poignantly, in the following poem, “Faint Relatives or Failing at Translation,” Ticic explores the gaps in meaning between words translated between her first and second languages, Croatian and English, and the speaker, musing on the word “lark,” or “ševa,” acknowledges the limits of translation in transferring meaning and offering a sense of belonging or citizenship:

My people—who are my people?—have squinted their eyes for so long that a songbird translates to fucking. This has never made sense to me. To make songbirds taboo eventually results in people’s throats hardening. It creates the perfect aphasia.

The limits of translation become even more apparent to her when she compares the connotations of the English “passion” with the Croatian “strast” in an arresting meditation:

The word that does not translate. When entering a Slavic mouth it becomes somehow sexual, a provocation. The wandering hand underneath a Sunday tablecloth, freshly pressed, sunflowers at its center. The whisper of excitement among lovers. Only a faint relative to the Anglophone promise of greatness. As if that to believe in something, anything—could never be innocent.

Language proves an undeniable barrier for the speaker of the poems in Alice in Greenpoint, but by the collection’s conclusion, she has learned that where she cannot translate, she can transcend, and that language, poetry, offers that transcendence. “The poem is the testament,” she asserts in the final section of the closing poem “We Have Traveled So Far, Only to Come Home,” leaving the reader with this:

All of the body is built on the past—

the chipped-at collisions and inward worm-holes

yet I use it to transport the delicate load

wondering often of how I’ve arrived.

Oh, do not ask me if Mars / is an ethical place.

Let those who must go carry the strange weight

of all that was left

and of how to return.

The speaker has traveled—and arrived—and returned. She has translated. And she has testified.

Alice in Greenpoint is available for pre-order at Finishing Line Press’s website.

Review by Billie Tadros

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Review of The Coffins of Little Hope

Welcome to Suburban Diaspora’s blog. This week we’ll take a look at an older novel: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert, published by Unbridled Books in 2011.

The Coffins of Little Hope raises many questions, including those about small towns, the media, and perception in general. The novel is the fourth from Timothy Schaffert, and it is told from the perspective of an octogenarian obituary writer in small Nebraskan town. Working for a family newspaper that is now owned and operated by her grandson, Esther Myles tells the stories of the dead. In fact, the novel itself is written as a seeming tribute to a girl named Lenore, who may or may not have been conjured by her mother Daisy in a moment of emotional distress. The question of whether Lenore is real or not becomes one of the central questions of the novel as her presence, or lack thereof, brings revenue to a dying town.

The primary strengths of the novel lie in the ambiguity of the passages and the brevity of the chapters. Each short chapter—many are only two or three pages long—creates a guttural reaction within the reader, and those reactions lead to the reader drawing conclusions in a visceral and emotional way. Schaffert’s minimalist approach doesn’t leave much time for contemplation until after the book is finished, and it doesn’t rely on soaring prose or thesaurus language—it even makes fun of such approaches at one point in the text. Instead, Schaffert focuses on prying and mining the deepest relevance within the reader’s psyche. There’s no doubt in my mind that every reader of this novel would have a different experience, but each of those experiences would be powerful in their own way.

The thematic elements include small town identity, the role of the media in society, and even gender roles to a certain extent. Each of these themes is treated with a delicate hand, and Schaffert rarely puts all of his cards on the table. The pacing of the prose allows little room for error, with moods often set in a single sentence: “There’s a pioneer graveyard out in the country, one you have to know how to find, as it’s tucked far back off the road and hidden by the drape of overgrown weeping willows.” The decay of the small town is palpable in every word, and the fact that Lenore’s disappearance brings life to the town is both intriguing and appalling. The duality of the little girl’s disappearance is the central focus for much of the narrative, and Schaffert allows the reader only enough to make their own assumptions as to what has really happened.

The only criticism to levy against this novel in my estimation is that sometimes the pacing grows uneven in longer chapters. Needed moments of tension feel drawn out in comparison to the shorter sections, and it can lead to the chapters feeling much longer than they actually are. By the same token, a lot of these chapters are the most rewarding to read, because of the build to their climax, and it isn’t as if they are that much longer. No chapter within the novel extends past ten pages; they just seem long when juxtaposed with other chapters that are less than three pages long.

Criticism aside, Schaffert’s characters make the world of The Coffins of Little Hope a fascinating place. Whether you identify with the unconventional protagonist trying to find the truth, the grandson trying to fill the shoes of his father, or the great-granddaughter with identity issues, there are emotional connections to be made for most readers. The brush that paints these characters is subtle enough that every chapter is likely to give something to reflect over, and that alone makes this novel worth reading.

The Coffins of Little Hope is available at Unbridled Books’ website.

Review by Matt Kimberlin