Sheila Squillante’s Beautiful Nerve

by Stephanie Cawley

Sheila Squillante's Beautiful Nerve (Tiny Hardcore Press 2015)

Sheila Squillante’s Beautiful Nerve (Tiny Hardcore Press 2015)

(Tiny Hardcore Press/2015)

“This is what it feels like / to be both,” thinks the speaker of the first poem in Sheila Squillante’s debut collection Beautiful Nerve. And in the second poem, “Fear,” the speaker anxiously considers (or tries not to consider) “how small and frank the space between / the whole and the part,” alongside images of horse vivisection and human bodies being sliced in two. Exploring the relationship between parts and wholes is a useful way to look at Squillante’s collection of poems, poems interwoven by a system of “beautiful nerves,” at once delicate and tough, more steel wool than cotton candy.

The book is structured in three sections: the middle section consists of prose poems that chart scenes of anxious dreams about family and the body, full of bears and a fish-woman and a falling neoprene sky. The first and third sections contain more lyric and fragmented poems that explore similar thematic and emotional terrain.

Though the center section is fun to read, the real pleasure of the collection, for me at least, is in the obsessional, interlocking series of poems in the first and third sections, poems like “One Sparrow in a Flock of Sparrows from Here On,” “A Wonderful Surprise,” “Make Up a Secret About Yourself,” and “Divine Girl.” In moments of these poems, lines or phrases repeat in partial or modified echo: in “One Sparrow in a Flock of Sparrows from Here On,” the speaker says, “History is to separate or divide / in thought” and “Probably he made small talk,” while in “A Wonderful Surprise,” the speaker writes, “In history, your friend sleeps / on the sofa,” and “Separate or divide the unsightly place where secrets / bring small talk.” In other moments the poems seem almost like erasures of each other. In many, images like salt or the color blue are laden with meanings and associations developed in other poems. The title of one poem early on becomes a closing line of a much later poem, and so on.

But it becomes impossible to chart the relationships neatly, creating an effect that is both dizzying and delightful. The intricately telescoping tangle of these poems—like neural wiring, like arteries, like roots of plants—resists an easy decoding, offering instead a brilliant bouquet of “nervous yellow bloom[s].”

I am tempted to say these are poems of the mind—its jagged anxieties, uneasy associations, and lucid moments of wonder—but they are, just as much, also poems of the world the mind perceives, rendered in lush and eccentric detail. In “Perquisite,” the speaker holds “antique glass doorknobs” to her eyes so “the world looks clear and equally swag.” And the body, its failing knees and cancerous freckles, is often the center and source of this mind’s turnings. There are poems of both anxiety and love, terror and joy. Perhaps it is through these refusals to disentangle, to reduce or settle, that Squillante guides us, as readers, through “what it feels like / to be both.”

Posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Poetry Tagged with: , ,

Robert Yune’s Eighty Days of Sunlight

by Monique BrionesEighty Days of Sunlight

(Thought Catalog Books/Prospecta Press, June 2015)

“There must have been times he’d thought of leaving, pointing his car in one direction and speeding off, feeling the wind peel his old life away.”

Published last week, Robert Yune’s Eighty Days of Sunlight explores the relationship between protagonist Jason and his brother Tommy following their father’s suicide. After spending their childhoods in two completely different worlds, Jason and Tommy begin the slow process of reconciling their differences and sticking together.

One of the main buzz words around Robert Yune’s debut novel appears to be “coming-of-age.” While it’s right to categorize Eighty Days of Sunlight as such, there are a number of formulaic expectations of other (often more commercial) coming-of-age stories that Yune’s novel subverts. This is to say that the novel never falls prey to the general melodrama of other coming-of-age protagonists, who learn to define themselves through self-evident climaxes and other one-and-done experiences.

It would have been quite simple, for instance, for Jason and Tommy to have had a testy relationship that culminates into a telling moment of true camaraderie, then have Jason’s feelings about the relationship resolved. Real family relationships don’t work out as smoothly, and Yune makes sure to never give any clear-cut perspectives on any of his characters.

Because relationships transform over time, Jason and Tommy never reach a definitive conclusion, and Jason’s interactions with Tommy become the equivalent of running into a brick wall over and over again. Through listening to how Jason feels about Tommy’s unpredictable moods, upsetting drug use, and aggressive behavior, it becomes easy to see how “anger seldom moves in a straight line . . . Most angers tend to hover like humidity teeming with gnats. Without an outlet, it builds inside until one tiny thing at the wrong time sparks an epic freakout.” There’s a vicious cyclicality to this relationship that neither Jason nor Tommy know how to end, only that they do need each other.

This portrayal of the brothers is also a much more nuanced vision of family that sets Eighty Days apart from its peers. Rather than family being a duty that Jason feels responsible for, Jason considers Tommy his family due to shared experience. This view on family becomes something that Jason contends with and returns to throughout the novel. Nothing is sugarcoated about the way family works in the novel–it can throw liquor bottles at you, it can abandon you, and it can often betray you. The reason that Jason and Tommy stick together isn’t from the superficial connection of their blood, it’s because there’s too much that they’ve gone through together.

One of these shared experiences, race, becomes another issue of identity that Jason has to tackle. Although Jason and Tommy are Korean-American men, Jason doesn’t enjoy the entitled, probing questions he receives from other Asian-Americans of “what are you,” stating that “being a member of a racial group felt too much like being a member of a street gang with its own crude rules and predetermined loyalties and hates.” When Jason’s thoughts on racial identity begin to unnerve him, he sets out with Tommy and Tommy’s girlfriend Kate to figure out why he does or doesn’t feel connected to his race. He doesn’t succeed on this mission, but he later resolves his feelings while undergoing different challenges.

And perhaps this is what makes Eighty Days seems like a much more mature version of a coming-of-age story. Whether it’s solving his father’s suicide, finding romance in college, or helping Tommy out, Jason doesn’t find epiphanies or moments of clarity when he looks for them. The epiphanies come to him, and it’s not until after certain events are long past fixing that he realizes the person he’s become and how he’s adapted to various circumstances in his life.

Yune looks at Jason in much the same way that light fractures into multiple colors–one person with different aspects to be viewed separately instead of having a single defining coming-of-age revelation. The settings (Princeton, Wilkes-Barre, and Pittsburgh) pulse with a gritty resonance that embodies the characters in a strained, cage-like way; only suiting for so many erratic characters who seem to be connected by how uncomfortable they are in their current situations. Yune’s crisp metaphors and endearing comedy cut through the heavier moments of Jason’s life, delivering a tenacious debut novel.

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A Study of Attitudes: Review of On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World by Elizabeth Kadetsky

by Courtney Luk

(Nouvella Books, April 2015)

Novella by Elizabeth Kadetsky

Novella by Elizabeth Kadetsky

“Netti was certainly that, exotic to even herself.” Drawn to the amalgamation that is the Maltese language, single mother Netti ventures from America to the island of Malta to find refuge from her past of recklessness, which includes heavy drinking and a toxic relationship. Netti’s talent is with language, knowing them and translating them, having previously worked as an interpreter. However, her prior experiences did not prepare Netti for life in Malta, where islanders are rattled by war and a particular hit-and-run incites Netti’s investigation of Maltese natives, and consequentially, herself.

Published in April 2015, novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World by Elizabeth Kadetsky explores the cliché that is finding oneself in a way that is driven by a unique setting and spurred by an event that seemingly does not involve the character but inevitably acts as a catalyst for her revelation. Kadetsky manages to cram in a sophisticated level of characterization and development akin to that of a full-length novel. Readers are able to relate to Netti as she rediscovers how bad habits leave imprints that follow her into the new life she attempts to build for herself and her son, Ian. On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World is about understanding oneself and others, attitudes and perceptions, cultures and differences.

After assisting a couple bringing Rose, an older woman who was struck by a car, to the hospital, Netti is determined to find the culprit of the hit-and-run although many men in Malta go by the same name: Joseph Borg. Strangely, the people whom Netti talks to are unaware of the family who is affected by the accident and cannot distinguish which Joseph Borg she is trying to find. During this search, Netti develops a relationship with neighbor Sofia, who adores Ian and has a young boy of her own. Sofia’s carefree attitude confuses Netti because Netti seems to be the complete opposite of her new friend—nervous, fearful, and persistent in finding justice for the injured family. Netti also forms a damaging bond with Jos Borg (short for Joseph), akin to her previous relationship. She allows herself to find comfort in a physical relationship with Jos that she regrets but cannot bring herself to leave. It is through these connections and talking to Maltese natives that Netti realizes the behaviors from which she fled have come with her to Malta.

Much of this novella also revolves around the idea of cultures. In comparison to the Maltese, Netti is wholly American, thus she has a hard time understanding everyone else’s dismissal of the hit-and-run. She cannot fathom not holding the driver accountable for his actions, especially if he had killed the older woman: “It’s a serious crime, at least in America. Only in Malta they can find you because it’s a small country of many cousins and few secrets.” This is a typical American approach to crime. However, the islanders believe differently and brush Netti off upon questioning, advising her to leave the situation to rest. Even Sofia does not entertain the thought for long, finally explaining to Netti that there are so few people in Malta and it is such a tight-knit community that one may be related to anyone on the island, meaning one may be blamed or undesirably involved in a case such as the hit-and-run. In order to stay out of the situation, Maltese natives refuse to discuss the matter with Netti, essentially an outsider to the society. Here, disengagement is bliss.

In her interactions with others, Netti discovers that “outsider” extends to people other than her and Ian. It applies to the Italians. Maltese natives are quick to ask Netti if she is Italian, to which she clarifies that she is American. To this they embrace her presence. In contrast to the amalgamation of languages and cultures Netti thought was Malta, she is faced with the distinct separation between the Maltese and Italians, whose “most distinguishing characteristic was its difference from us.” Netti often finds herself being in limbo in this us-versus-them binary, being neither Maltese nor Italian yet mistaken for the latter. This culture clash comes unexpected to Netti but most likely resonates with readers as members within societal boundaries.

Kadetsky’s novella is as much a story about an individual as it is about groups of people. It traces Netti’s struggle of recklessness and her rise from it while also focusing on the island of Malta and its people. Attitude in particular is at the forefront. How do cultures and individuals compare in regards to the intrusion of outsiders or foreign experiences? How do they deal with internal issues? Kadetsky masterfully conjoins these two lenses into one, having each interact and build upon the other to propel a singular story. Netti is affected by the happenings and ways of Malta as much as she affects those around her because of her hunger for revelation. Readers are privy to understanding the parallel between Netti’s attitude toward herself and a new environment, and Malta and its inner workings. Moreover, each scene adds to the plot of the story, making the novella move quickly and efficiently. There is hardly a moment that does not show character or purpose. With this pace, Kadetsky is able to pack in all that is needed to develop a look into attitudes and perspectives from a close distance. And in this small amount of space, Kadetsky manages to provide readers with a striking comparison of small-scale societies and the individual.

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