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Chloe Forsell

In Search of Invisible Lives: A Review of John Gallaher’s In a Landscape

Sometimes, while sitting on my bed in my dimly lit college dorm room cramming for a test, I consider the ways my life would be altered had only the smallest things worked out differently. What if my mother hadn’t shielded me from seeing my cat get run over? What if I hadn’t learned the hard lesson about bike riding and loose pants at eight years old? What if I had chosen to take Spanish instead of French in high school? It is this kind of prodding at one’s own life that I imagine inspires John Gallaher’s In A Landscape, a deeply reflective poem/memoir.

Gallaher has authored or co-authored five collections of poetry, the most recent two published by BOA Editions: Your Father on the Train of Ghosts with G.C. Waldrep in 2011, and In a Landscape in 2014. His 2007 collection The Little Book of Guesses won the Levis Poetry Prize.  His poetry has been featured in a variety of magazines, literary journals, and anthologies, including the 2008 edition of The Best American Poetry.

To look at the cover of In a Landscape is to be instantly transported to the familiar. The simple sketch of a suburban neighborhood of square houses with two-car garages and front porches could be any town—almost so mundane it bores us.  Except for the single hand that floats above the cul-de-sac, pointing, reaching toward the houses, attempting to touch, grasp even, some bit of the lives of the people within them.

“Are you happy?” Gallaher opens the collection with this question, demanding that the reader become aware of her own mental and physical space as well as her role as reader of this poem. The address of this piece, as with most in the book, contains an I and a you which read as Gallaher himself speaking almost directly to the reader. Gallaher’s poetics blur the lines of speaker and author, you as character versus you as audience, we as characters versus we as the universal or communal. This blurring allows for an intimacy that is at once uncomfortable and comforting. As the poems unfold Roman numeral after Roman numeral, we become more and more familiar with a speaker who we begin to understand is almost completely Gallaher himself.

This unfolding is another strength of the collection. Written in long-lined verse, which mimics prose, Gallaher’s poems don’t allow us to read them simply as narrative. Just as we feel we are being lulled into a narrative of memoir, a thought, a musing, a sudden new idea interrupts and jolts us—capturing the tendencies of human consciousness:

I also remember gluing a Popsicle stick to my upper lip, as a mustache. It burned. And now I’m reading that we all have invisible lives that encircle us, some imagined thing that defines us in some way, and I’m thinking it’s more true to think that there’s nothing invisible about us. This is what we are. Look around. We stagger because we stagger. It’s where we get to.

It is through this ability to capture our inclinations of thought, and the power of association and dissociation, that Gallaher is able to achieve what his poetry seems to be reaching to do: to relate. As Gallaher becomes consumed in moments of his own life, he asks the reader to try to understand and relate to them. For instance, the memory of a four a.m. car ride, recalls another car ride, and reveals the invisible life of an ordinary moment: “But then, there’s this other car ride, isn’t there,/where I’m knowing it’s the last moment with someone,/that it’s the last moment we will still be in love, or something like it.”

In a Landscape asks the reader to feel a deeply intimate and philosophical connection to the lines on the page, to experience an inescapable questioning of oneself and life through vignettes of a life at once foreign and familiar, to abandon the unwritten rule of poetry that insists that we not equate speaker and author. The collection asks the reader to push through the long-lined philosophizing, extensive use of memoir, and near-constant questioning that is frequently left to the reader to answer. Do so, and you will inevitably find something which many other collections of poetry—though perhaps more traditionally beautiful or pleasing in form—fall short of achieving: An ability to bridge the deep disconnect that exists intrinsically within a population of human beings who above all else want to relate to each other. In the final poem, Gallaher writes:

And heaven is 7% smaller now, and has had to cut a couple whole departments. So we ask ourselves what’s left there, and we don’t know. But we start off anyway, because that’s what we do. And then one day we just stop.

We exist as a result of infinite unknowns. Gallaher recognizes that it is these unknowns, as well as the moments unique to each life and the associations which link one life to another, that best allow us to understand each other. His ultimate vulnerability, as well as his undeniable craft, leaves the reader with a rare sense of intimacy. By the time the reader reaches the above excerpt, which ends the seventy-one section poem, she finds herself in a comfortable acceptance that she, somewhere along the course of this collection, has become a part of the “we” that doesn’t know, but will “start off anyway.”


Chloe Forsell is a junior at SUNY Geneseo pursuing undergraduate degrees in English and French. She hails from a very small Lake Erie town in Chautauqua County, about an hour south of Buffalo. Chloe has developed many fleeting interests ranging from green tea to iridology. She was published in Gandy Dancer Issue 3.1, and is thrilled to be a current member of the Gandy Dancer team.

 

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Ethan Keeley

 Error and Empathy: A Review of Karin Lin-Greenberg’s Faulty Predictions

I didn’t know what to expect when I first picked up Karin Lin-Greenberg’s collection of short stories, Faulty Predictions. As the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the collection doubtlessly had literary merit. But the cover—and we all judge books initially by their covers—with its sunny color scheme and playful cursive font, suggested a light summer read, something to flip through beside the pool or on a beach during vacation. This assumption itself was a faulty prediction, as I immediately discovered after reading the first story, “Editorial Decisions,” which deals with social alienation, prejudice, elitism, and suicide, within the walls of a high school. I further understood my error as I continued reading Lin-Greenberg’s humorous, resonant, well-crafted stories. As a writer of fiction, I clung to her idiosyncratic, lovably flawed characters, her various and detailed locales, and her inviting prose style. Despite their differences in length, content, and point of view, the stories collected in Faulty Predictions all cohere under the thematic umbrella of the collection’s title.

Faulty Predictions is filled with characters of all backgrounds seeking to control their situations, suppress their emotions, maintain their worldviews, or change their families. They all seem to know what they want until they are met with the very truths they avoid. As I read the collection, I came to realize that my prejudgment of the book was a reflection of a broader human desire to control and the tendency to make superficial assumptions. There is security in being able to predict the outcomes, and having one’s expectations thwarted is uncomfortable, but usually illuminating. Just as I quickly became aware of my own mistake in superficially pre-judging Lin-Greenberg’s collection, her characters come face to face with their own biases as well, and the consequences that follow. In “Late Night with Brad Mack,” the son of a late-night TV show host can hardly believe his father’s support and sincerity; an older English professor, Pete Peterson, is perplexed by the sight of his own youthful abandon caught on video in “The Local Scrooge”; a disgruntled medical resident in “A Good Brother” instinctively shows deep affection for his sister in a wedding dress shop.

Faulty Predictions is as much a presentation of its characters’ thwarted prejudices as it is a reflection of our own. In the collection’s shortest story, “Bread,” the alleged antagonist Lenny, who purposefully squeezes and ruins loaves of bread at grocery stores, turns out to have altruistic motives. Lizzie, Lenny’s girlfriend, recognizes Lenny’s righteousness. Her Ma, however, does not. She has preconceived notions about Lenny, as we do, and seeing his face plastered all over the local news doesn’t warm her up to him any more. Yet in the end, Ma unknowingly benefits from Lenny’s behavior. We know, however, thanks to Lizzie’s compassionate point of view. This story, though brief, captures the heart of Lin-Greenberg’s entire collection; not only does it explore the importance of perspective in determining our prejudices toward one another, it celebrates the little, often unnoticeable things people do to make life better for others.

“Miller Duskman’s Mistakes” explores these themes of human predisposition and goodwill in a broader sense. The story is told in the first-person perspective of the nameless owner of the Ladybug Bed and Breakfast, whose deeply rooted understanding of the intimate town of Morningstar, Ohio and its inhabitants allows her a sort of omniscience. This inventive manipulation of point of view allows Lin-Greenberg to explore more of what happens in Morningstar than would be possible if it were a more strictly limited point of view. As a result, the nameless narrator becomes the voice of Morningstar as a whole. When the story’s title character moves into town and opens a high-end pizza shop, he is met with disdain. Like an immune system fending off a foreign cell, the people of Morningstar initially try their best to drive Miller out by refusing to buy his food. But they come to realize their reactive behavior ultimately has greater, devastating implications when Avery Swenson, the town’s most beloved and promising individual, leaves indefinitely as a result of the mistreatment.

While Lin-Greenberg ends “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes” on a darker note than some of her other stories, it is still filled with moments of optimism that are characteristic of her writing. Avery and another younger resident, Caleb Barlow, are always looking to help others, whether it be their neighbors or the birds who fatally fly into Miller’s glass building. The humanity with which Lin-Greenberg imbues these characters conveys the vital importance of empathy, which is the remedy for human prejudice: “It might not be kind to say that [Caleb] was slow, but that’s the truth. He was the sweetest boy around, gentle, loved animals…He was the first student in the history of Morningstar to never miss a single day of school…” (124). While this assessment of Caleb comes directly from the owner of the Ladybug, it is, again, representative of the whole town’s consciousness. Whether or not all the individuals in Morningstar feel this way about Caleb, thanks to the omniscience Lin-Greenberg employs through her narrator, we trust her accuracy, and come to know and admire Caleb as well.

These instances of optimism and empathy are potently found in “Prized Possessions.” Lydia Wong, an immigrant from Shanghai, struggles to bond with her filmmaker daughter Anna, who is far removed from her mother’s Chinese values. Lin-Greenberg depicts moments of familial tenderness that highlight Lydia’s true feelings toward her daughter despite their strained relationship: “Surely Anna had to know that Lydia had only wanted the best for her, always. Yes, she’d been strict when Anna was growing up, but all she wanted was for Anna to grow up to be a proper, well-behaved young lady” (39). These revelations all take place within Lydia’s thoughts—they are never stated out loud and never openly discussed between characters. Lin-Greenberg understands that we seldom speak what we actually think, and these repressed sentiments preserve many of our insecurities and faulty predictions about ourselves and others—even our own families.

Indeed, Lin-Greenberg’s stories are ultimately about family, and not exclusively biological families. The high school seniors in “Editorial Decisions” become a family through their shared experiences, as do the diverse students of the “Half and Half Club,” the collection’s final story. The entire town of Morningstar, Ohio collectively raises Avery Swenson after her mother is killed in a truck accident and her father dies in Iraq; Lydia Wong walks “into the warmth of the afternoon to join her family” (49); Pete the professor recognizes “something familiar in the image of himself on the screen,” but can’t quite accept his role as an affectionate grandfather and human being (73). In the collection’s titular story, Hazel Stump, a paranoid elderly woman and self-proclaimed psychic, isn’t yet ready to embrace her multiracial family, only acknowledging them by writing their initials on several chalkboards in a college building. She foresees many things accurately, yet has the greatest trouble facing the most important truths of her life: the futility of her prejudices and a deep affection for her family.

Karin Lin-Greenberg’s collection makes us consider our own families and communities, our prejudices and insecurities. To read these stories is to connect to fellow human beings from many places, to understand their individual and universal struggles, and to reinvigorate the inherent human empathy that unites us all. It is also to understand how our faulty predictions about ourselves and those around us ultimately distract us from this unity. Lin-Greenberg, through her poignant, hopeful, and funny stories, offers redemption not only for her characters, but for her readers as well.


Ethan Keeley was born and raised in Rochester, New York, a significant hub of culture and the arts. When he isn’t writing he is either living vicariously through his nerdy obsessions, or playing guitar. He tours with his band whenever possible in a van unfit for proper sleeping. His fiction has been published in previous issues of Gandy Dancer.

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Sarah N. Lawson

Portraits of Struggle: A Review of Amina Gautier’s At-Risk

As a middle-class, white female from a rural area in Western New York, reading has always been a way for me to learn about other people and their lives. Amina Gautier’s At-Risk, an engaging collection of short stories about the lives of young African Americans, introduced me to characters unlike any I have met before—in life or in literature.51VU6Vsof6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

At-Risk was published in 2011 by the University of Georgia Press and is the winner of the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. In At-Risk, Gautier explores narratives that are often ignored and characters who are dismissed by society. The collection includes ten short stories, beginning with “The Ease of Living,” the story of a boy from Brooklyn named Jason. He is sent by his mother to live with his elderly grandfather in the South after his two friends are killed during a gunfight on the streets. Jason resents his exile, but his grandfather’s home provides him an unlikely sanctuary in which to cope with the deaths of his friends and consider what that means for him.

This short story is immediately followed by “Afternoon Tea,” which is narrated in first-person by Dorothy, a first-generation American and daughter of a formerly wealthy Jamaican woman. Dorothy goes to a Saturday program hosted by members of a professional women’s sorority, but she is acutely aware that these women are trying to divorce her and the other girls from their mothers and their upbringing. This reality is exquisitely exposed in the line, “The Zeta Alpha Deltas had not been subtle in the least way about their desire to wean us from the women they didn’t want us to become.” Though their identities and backgrounds are different, Dorothy and Jason are both examples of the desire to be loyal to one’s environment despite the harm that environment can bring. The choice to open the collection with these two stories as reveals the many potential risks and obstacles in place for these young people.

While the characters in Gautier’s collection might be linked by the term “at-risk,” the reader comes to understand the inaccuracy of such a term. The main characters are of different ages, from elementary school age to adolescence. All of them are acutely aware of the pressures of a world that expects them to fail. This is highlighted in the story “Pan is Dead,” in which a gifted boy, Peter, is faced with the return of his father, who has a history of drug abuse and is a portrait of what Peter could become if he doesn’t use his intelligence to escape. The story is narrated by Peter’s younger sister, and she draws attention to the conflict of race and success with the lines, “‘Boy, you can’t be president.’ This much I knew. Everyone knew that the president was always white and never from Brooklyn.” This is especially interesting commentary from a collection published after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, but it reminds the reader that the image of a black man in the highest office in the nation had previously been unimaginable to young black people.

One of the collection’s most striking features is the envelope technique it employs to complete the book. The closing piece of the collection, “Yearn,” returns to characters from the first story, “The Ease of Living.” The story is not about Jason, however. It is the story of his friend Stephen, one of the two who was shot and killed. This image of a boy before his tragic and untimely death is a heartrending reminder that the term “at-risk youth” is applied to real people in our world. Though Dorothy, Peter, and Jason are all fictional characters, there are young people just like them with real desires and passions which often end up stymied by situations out of their control and choices that they never planned to make.

Gautier’s work is poignant, compassionate, and breathtaking in its humanity. The characters scream and whisper and declare, delivering their stories in a way that resonates in one’s bones. I won’t soon forget the characters I’ve met here: whether feisty or bewildered, determined or forsaken, they have much to say about the perils of adolescence, especially as it intersects with poverty and racism.

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Lucia LoTempio & Kathryn Waring

Documenting Desire: A Review of Erika Meitner’s Copia

41jTafyf1oL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Erika Meitner’s latest collection of poems, Copia, is tied together with the common theme of desire. Although the collection is divided into three sections—which focus on our materialistic desires, the need for home, and an exploration of Detroit (which serves as an extended metaphor for infertility)—Meitner’s collection is surprisingly cohesive. Because Meitner relies on recurring images to explore both personal and cultural identity, reading her collection feels like reading a particularly enthralling story: there is a careful attention to narrative arc, character, and setting within the pages of Copia.

“Objects around us are not strangers/They are the ruins/in which we drown,” the speaker of the first poem in Meitner’s collection (“Litany of Our Radical Engagement with the Material World”) proclaims. Thus begins Meitner’s examination of our desire for the material. When Meitner visited Geneseo in October, she discussed her decision to write about the most un-poetic subject she could think of: Wal-Mart. The resulting poem, “Wal-Mart Supercenter,” showcases Meitner’s ability to take the banal—the trips to Wal-Mart people take everyday—and turn it into the poetic: the memorable. In this poem, Meitner grounds vignettes of parents trying to sell their children and women being carjacked with commentary on consumerism: “Which is to say that the world/we expect to see looks hewn from wood, is maybe two lanes wide,/has readily identifiable produce, and the one we’ve got has jackknifed itself/on the side of the interstate and keeps skidding.”

In a world where things are so present, so unyielding, it is complicated and devastating to lose the intangible, Meitner suggests. Throughout the collection, Meitner’s collective speakers seem to desire two things above all else: familial connection and a place to call home. When Meitner’s grandmother died, her family’s access to Yiddish did as well. In her exploration of her Jewish heritage in “Yiddishland,” she states in the opening lines, “The people who sang to their children in Yiddish and worked in Yiddish/and made love in Yiddish are nearly all gone. Phantasmic. Heym.” Here, Meitner’s connection to her family, and thus her familial history, is the disappearing intangible: as her speaker says in “Yizker Bukh,” “Memory is/flotsam (yes) just/below the surface/an eternal city/a heap of rubble…” Within her speakers’ struggle to maintain connections to their families and cultural heritage, another struggle arises: finding a place to call home. In this regard, geographic borders are a recurring theme within Meitner’s collection. “Everywhere is home for someone,” the speaker states in “Apologetics.” “We are placeless. We are placeful/but unrooted. We are boomburbs and copia. We are excavated/and hoisted. We are rubble. We are,” the speaker in “The Architecture of Memory” continues. From suburban Long Island to Niagara Falls to the rubble of Detroit, Meitner skillfully combines physical location with vivid, unexpected images and sounds to explore location and what it means to call a place home.

The title of Meitner’s collection, Copia, means ‘abundance,’ ‘fullness.’ But in the third part of the collection, we travel alongside Meitner to a place that is the opposite of ‘copia’—a place that is empty, in need of being re-filled and rebuilt: Detroit. Meitner’s decision to use Detroit as a metaphor for infertility and the desire to rebuild comes across loud and clear: “Inside me is a playground, is a factory,” the speaker of “Borderama” proclaims. “Inside me is a cipher of decay./[…]Inside me is America’s greatest manufacturing experience.” “Inside me is someone saying we will/rebuild this city,” the speaker seems to conclude. Meitner describes Detroit as a modern-day ghost town: in “And After the Ark,” the speaker describes a section of the city where artists have transformed the rubble of a largely-abandoned neighborhood into an open-air museum: “what was left behind was astounding:/dead trees wearing upside-down shopping carts on their hands/conference call phones, black and ringless, resting on a park bench.” Perhaps because of the poem’s setting in a neighborhood that creates art from the detritus so prevalent in Detroit, there is also a physicality, a sense of responsibility and call to action that arises within the poem (and the collection, as a whole): “And You Shall Say God Did It,” the speaker of “And After the Ark” continues, “but really it was racism/poverty/economics/inequality/violence.” How did we allow this happen, the speaker seems to be asking readers. How could we have prevented this?

The third section of Copia also presents a fascinating commentary on the blurred borders that exist between poetry and creative nonfiction: Meitner wrote the section of documentary poetry after traveling to Detroit with photojournalists Jesse Dukes and Kate Ringo to give voice to the people, the buildings, the graffiti through poetry. In “All That Blue Fire,” Meitner reconstructs, verbatim, an interview with a Detroit automobile factory worker: “they lay the motor down,/they put the heads on,/the spark plugs in.” In other poems from the section, her speakers become part of Detroit itself, as in “The Book of Dissolution,” in which the speaker is “a house waiting to fall in on/itself or burn.” On the whole, these poems feel honest, even hopeful about the future of Detroit. By traveling to Detroit to experience the city herself, Meitner, in some ways, transforms from a poet into a new journalist: responsible for reporting the facts, she delves into the personal—gives life to the city by documenting the lives of the people she meets and providing them with a space to tell their own stories. The investigative approach of Copia’s third section offers new possibilities for both Detroit as a city and poetry as a genre.

Meitner’s poems rarely provide concrete answers, but her sharp, evocative language invites readers into an important conversation on the hollowness of the American dream—the common desires that go unfulfilled everyday. Grounded in the objects that surround us, in the desire to have strong connections with family and heritage, in Detroit, Copia hooks readers into an important debate on the role of desire in everyday life, but also encourages us to enjoy the ride with its unexpected imagery and masterful use of sound and cadence. Meitner is skillful; she does not blame, but calls to action, “[b]ecause though this world is changing,/we will remain the same: abundant and/impossible to fill.”

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