Lately I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which what's been domesticated refuses to be synonymous with safety. Perhaps an ideal space within which we might explore this reality is the chapbook. My mother’s visceral definition of poetry, for example, is reminiscent of “roses are red, violets are blue.” Similarly, I’ve overheard chapbooks described as “adorable little things,” even at national book conferences. I’ll gloss over the cliché that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and note that lately I’ve encountered some mighty fierce small books, ones that take a seam ripper to what’s (not) neat and tidy.
Surviving in Drought by Brad Aaron Modlin
(The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2017)
Earlier this year I discovered Brad Aaron Modlin’s Surviving in Drought at an AWP17 book-fair table. Amidst the thousands of beautiful books, Modlin’s two-tone cover, which features a vintage diving helmet, sung to me like a siren. The title, Surviving in Drought, and the cover art, bold-styled orange-and-blue scuba gear, offer quite the juxtaposition. My immediate thought was a single word: excess. A complete lack of water shifts, suddenly, to an entire ocean’s worth, and I’m intrigued.
On the first page, I find “twelve housewives” in “twelve submarines” who “each want sweeter baking chocolate.” Largely due to strength in numbers, I sense a nagging, and I feel overwhelmed. Is it the narrator who deems these men “wholesomely handsome but domestically inept,” or are the wives, perhaps unreasonably, the ones who feel this way? Regardless, maybe they are asking for too much. I mean, who even knew that baking chocolate comes in a variety of sweetnesses, and why can’t these ladies just add some damn sugar…
Just as my heart goes out to these husbands, I remember that these women are trapped underwater in vessels that “look nothing like those displayed in the submarine brochures.” Are the men to blame for the women’s misery for it is they who “promised them happiness” there; or are the women to blame for throwing all of their eggs into these deep-sea baskets; or am I, as the reader, foolish to even contemplate such blanket-like statements, which I’m viewing through a grossly gendered lens? Surely the over-the-top stereotypes, which scream from Modlin’s petite pages, are raucous enough to make me realize the absurdity of my domestic assumptions. Shame on me, and bravo to Modlin, for entertaining me, versus shaming me, into these important self-explorations of my initial visceral experiences.
It might be worth noting that not all readers will consider Surviving in Drought to be poetry. The book contains prose poetry or perhaps flash fiction, but I’m not much one for genre labels. My favorite books often fall within a hybrid space, and this sharp, and quirky book is more than worth the swim. Just make sure to keep one foot in reality so you don’t miss out on the complexities. For example, when a nameless boyfriend greets a bachelorette at the threshold, “he will be on one knee with both palms up toward her. In the left will be a diamond ring, in the right a bouquet of aprons.” This is both funny and exceptionally heartbreaking. As the title of the first piece suggests, it’s always “Easier in the Picture,” which is true of most things in life, isn’t it?
Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In by Karen Craigo
(Hermeneutic Chaos Press, 2016)
After reading about Modlin’s “Eight Bachelorettes” who eventually become eight (rightfully) “Suspicious Wives” and then “Eight Divorcées,” I dove into Karen Craigo’s poetry chapbook, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In. Craigo’s book opens with “Escaped Housewife Prepares to Try Out for Jeopardy!” In her car, a woman quizzes herself and presses her horn. “She knows the answers are the easy part, / what’s given,” but “she worries she may forget / to phrase her responses / in the form of a question.” Through humor, Craigo addresses the experience of many contemporary women. Most of us know too well the careful practice of phrasing our thoughts in ways that will be palatable to a world still working toward gender equality.
As the escaped housewife explores the meaning of her world, she equates her job as a cosmetologist to the cosmos, ponders her newly acquired penis, and learns to play bagpipes because “one voice isn’t nearly enough.” She grows strong as her “eyes hurt the light.” She wavers and “Wishes to Be Anyone Else,” and after she tosses her wedding ring into the ocean, she tells herself that “if she finds it / she must return, slip into her chair / at the table” and “resume her conversation / as if she had only stepped away / for a peek into the oven.” Her adventures, though, are the opportunities of a lifetime; she becomes a backup singer and an acrobat, and she even speaks directly.
In the final poem, Craigo tells us to explore her collection through a metaphorical lens. This escaped housewife is “not really here.” Rather, she is “what happens when a pen / swiped from the office / meets the back of the gas bill.” Craigo keeps even the darker moments of her book from turning Kafkaesque, while still offering a never-ending existentialist exploration. I appreciate that Craigo refuses to soak us in our nightmares and instead splashes us with difficult truths, including decisions-to-be-made, via her effective and raucous humor.
The Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In is truthful, heartbreaking, and funny. As a woman who thought she’d never marry, then thought she’d never divorce, and most certainly never thought she’d become engaged again, this slender book speaks to each era of myself and to the other possible versions of myself, as well. Craigo reminds us “That what comes / to us by fate / is wrong.” Her writing is loving, and it is fierce, and this chapbook is one of those rare books that transcends conversations and connections. I’ll be bold enough to state that Craigo’s book offers a language and a light capable of changing a reader’s life trajectory.
Two-Headed Boy by Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee
(Organic Weapon Arts, 2016)
It’s difficult for me to ponder domesticity without at least touching on the complex relationships of siblings, and Two-Headed Boy, co-authored by the Carlson-Wee brothers, intrigues me, in part, for that reason. If you’ve ever heard two relatives recall an event, you know that you might become a witness to two significantly different versions. It seems that the realities surrounding siblinghood are often reimagined, sometimes even romanticized, and this creates contradictions of sorts. Two-Headed Boy transcends the polarities of siblinghood, moments of love and of hate, to capture adolescence, and beyond, in a way that I’ve never quite witnessed.
The book alternates between poems by each brother, and it opens with Ander’s “Dynamite,” which is named after a childhood game. In this game, everything is dynamite except “pine sticks are rifles and pinecones are grenades.” Anders begins the poem, “My brother hits me hard with a stick / so I whip a choke-chain // across his face.” This poem demonstrates how quickly youthful imaginings can shift, in no time, to gravid realities. While one brother bleeds from his face, the other hopes to stop an equally violent retaliation by threatening a favorite pet frog, which they keep “behind the garage” in “buckets of water with logs and rock islands.” The authenticity of this poem prevents it from being boiled down to a parable, but the closure does, in part, deconstruct a false sense of safety that some might associate with childhood and domesticity. Anders writes, “I say a hammer isn’t dynamite,” not wanting to be hit by a hammer, but he is reminded that “everything is dynamite.”
This chapbook is immersed in the harsh realities of life—including the pains that come with siblinghood—but it also brims with love. In “To the Rail Cop at Rathdrum,” Anders writes, “You had me for trespassing, / and probably for vandalism,” and most likely, somehow, for “the flames throwing a shiver-glow,” as well. When the cop sees a duffle bag in the bushes, he realizes that the kid isn’t alone. Anders writes, “You offered to cut me / a deal for a name. Said the cold truth / was my buddy wouldn’t protect me.” Not knowing that the two are brothers, the cop asks how well he knows his accomplice, says that he “should think about that” before throwing himself “on the tracks.” This poem is a testament to a brotherly connection, moving beyond niceties, beyond platitudes, beyond what’s neat and tidy about love.
This chapbook captures a tenderness of which I’m envious. In “Minnesota Roads,” Kai writes, “Dawn-light and I’m driving the back country dairies / and hayricks on North 64, my brother asleep / on the window beside me.” I melt at this moment, especially as this poem closes the collection, after we’ve witnessed these brothers and their hazardous exploits—which I feel are too real to be labeled with the dreamy term adventures. I’m grateful that the Carlson-Wee poets have allowed us in on what is theirs, that they have passed us their Zig Zags, figuratively speaking. I hope that, with “rumpled-up atlas” in hand, Anders and Kai will continue to share these glimpses of their authentic love and pain, their “mutated cowboy,” and the “wind-stunted pines,” and maybe even, also, their unsavory “tin cans of stewed prunes and tuna fish.”
Heather Lang was voted Las Vegas' Best Local Writer or Poet this year by the readers of KNPR's Desert Companion. Her poetry and prose have been published by or are forthcoming with The Normal School, Paper Darts, and Pleiades, among others. Last year Heather was interviewed on Nevada Public Radio, and her writing process was on exhibit at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery. Heather teaches literature and composition part time at Nevada State College, and she serves as World Literature Editor with The Literary Review. www.heatherlang.cassera.net