Friday, September 30, 2016

Field Guide to the End of the World

Typically, field guides are books that help interested readers identify wildlife such as plants or animals, or natural objects, such as minerals, designed to be brought into the "field" or area where the  objects exist.  These books often feature detailed illustrations or photographs. According to Wikipedia, the first popular field guide to plants may have been  How to Know the Wildflowers by "Mrs. William Starr Dana" (Frances Theodora Parsons), published in 1893.  I knew I had a few classic field guides in my shelves, so I looked around my home to gather them.  Quickly, I found a small, eclectic bunch, mostly gifts from my mother (who nurtured the nature lover in me and my young family): A Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds (autographed by Roger Tory Peterson),  A Peterson Field Guide to Pacific State Wildflowers, The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather, and The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians.  And now there's a new kid on the block.  The newest addition to my collection is a field guide--to the end of the world.

"This is it, the apocalypse . . ."
~ Radioactive, Imagine Dragons

Published in 2016, Field Guide to the End of the World by Jeannine Hall Gailey is a collection of poems that won the 2015 Moon City Press Award.  This book is divided into five sections: Disaster Studies, Cultural Anthropology, Hard Science, A Primer for Your Personal Genome Project, and End Times Eschatology.  In the book, we are introduced to Teen Girl Vampires, Zombie Stripper Clones, and Alien Autopsies.  The tone of this collection is often humorous.  Martha Stewart's Guide to Apocalypse Living, with its "guide to storing munitions in attractive wicker boxes: page 52", has already been mentioned specifically as a very funny poem in other reviews of this book, and I agree.  This collection is filled with original, evocative images that underscore the importance of humor, even during the most troubling, uncertain, apocalyptic times.

There's notable, creative variety in the format of these poems.  Some are presented traditionally, while others, like Post-Apocalypse Postcard from the Viceroy Hotel, Santa Monica, and Post-Apocalypse Postcard from an American Girl ("determined for once to do more than survive"), resemble flash fiction; Shorting Out has spaces to illustrate the "shorts", and there's even a poem written in epistolary form, Letter to John Cusack, Piloting a Plane in an Apocalypse Movie.

Poetry, like music, must be felt to be understood.  You experience poetry by the actual reading of it, or by hearing someone else read it aloud.  Here is a sample from the book, a single, stunning poem, which the poet has given me permission to share. 

Every Human is a Black Box

We all carry our own road map to disaster, the faint voice recordings
that veer from mundane to hysterical in that last moment.
There's no turnkey solution to us; one person's milk
is another's poison; my mother swears green tea gives her hives.

My husband looks up from the field with scratchy throat and red eyes,
while I frolic in amid the goldenrod; at night I toss and wheeze
in the dust of my pillow while he snores dreamlessly.

Our lives have stood, like loaded guns -- for one, heart attack
by sauce alfredo, for another, 101 years of béarnaise and tobacco
troubled by nothing more than mild glaucoma.  Some of us
can disregard the warnings; others must cling tightly to directions.

When you slide into the grave, remember your body is a document,
a reminder, a memorial to distant waters, the siren call of cells
to sleep. Turn off. Shut down.  Mayday, May Day.

Another poem in the book that impressed me greatly is Yearbook: Not Pictured.  This poem is so clever and interesting!   The poet paints pictures of various moments in school "not pictured" in the yearbook, things that were personally meaningful and memorable (such as, "sneaking out to lie in the sun under that pink dogwood tree"),  and states that "the most important lessons are not the ones we were graded for".  How true!  Like all poets, she feels things very deeply, and remembers things well, although of course, memory is selective (relatedly, a young man signed my own high school yearbook with a line that I haven't forgotten, "the end is near").  In this poem, she presents a believable set of details from her time in school that casts us back to our own school days.

These apocalypse poems are poignant, but there are welcome rays of light--"let's just say it was all magical"--because "the poet clings, stubborn, to romance".  As I read this book, I marveled over many things, many times.  Jeannine Hall Gailey's work is full of thought, and fully brilliant. Although the book's subject is serious, this collection is also playful, heartfelt, and hopeful.  It is a celebration of life.  As you can tell, I'm a big fan of Jeannine Hall Gailey's work.  I've also read The Robot Scientist's Daughter, sci-fi poems published in 2015.  I'm eager to read She Returns to the Floating World, another collection of her poems, published by Kitsune Books in 2011.  In college, I read The Floating World in Japanese Fiction (sometimes it comes in handy to have been a Lit. major), and am especially interested in Japanese material now that I have been to Japan(!).  She Returns to the Floating World focuses on feminine transformations in the personae of characters from Japanese folk tales, anime, and manga.  It sounds quite intriguing to me!

Many thanks to Serena from Poetic Book Tours for organizing this tour, and also to Jeannine for graciously mailing me a print copy of her book because I wanted to read it in the traditional way.  For more reviews, please visit the other stops on the tour for Field Guide to the End of the World. I've linked my review to Serena's 2016 Poetry Challenge.

Thanks for reading what I've written!  It's your turn now.  Comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Saris and a Single Malt

I'll  admit right away that I cannot be objective.  Sweta Srivastava Vikram is one of my favorite contemporary authors.  I cherish her work.  Over the past several years, I've had the privilege and pleasure of reading and reviewing a lot of her work--mostly poetry--and I've also interviewed her.  This past weekend, I was thrilled to learn that her article, Sweet Somethings, was published in the New York Times Magazine section (it's just a matter of time until one of her books is listed as a NY Times bestseller, I think).  This prolific writer is also the CEO and Founder of NimmiLife, which helps people reach their goals by increasing their creativity, productivity, and health.  Her newest poetry collection, Saris and a Single Malt, published by Modern History Press in 2016, is her most personal to date. It is fittingly dedicated to her beloved mother, who died unexpectedly in India in 2014. The poet's mother, the subject of this book, affectionately called Mummy and Mumma, is richly brought to life in these poems.

"For Mummy--wherever you are, I am sure the place has good whiskey and a beautiful collection of saris."

The book takes place in "real time", over the course of a harrowing thirty-six hours.  The poems in this collection are an autobiographical account of the poet's thoughts and emotions as events unfold during an extremely difficult time.  On May 30, 2014, Sweta and her husband, Anudit, caught a flight to New Delhi because her mother fell ill suddenly, and was rushed to the ICU at Medanta Hospital in Gurgaon.  "Poetry, pain, and prayers" accompany Sweta on this arduous and uncertain journey.  In Saris and a Single Malt, we are invited into the very core of this intimate experience, and we feel the poet's great pain and loss.  But although she is disconsolate and distraught after her mother dies, the poet still manages to describe her mother's beauty, with grace and eloquence:

"Motherless: I embraced poetry and Bhaiya.
Peaceful and beautiful: Mumma looked
like a poem wrapped in a lavender sheet."
 ~ May 31, 2014, Poetry, pain, and prayers, Sweta Srivastava Vikram 

As always, Sweta puts everything into her work.  Saris and a Single Malt is intensely personal, passionate, and profound.  In the poem "I Write", Sweta states that she must write in order to survive this ordeal.  She articulates her pain and agony throughout the book, beginning with the flight on May 30, 2014, and describes many parts of the experience, such as being at JFK Airport and on the plane, arriving at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, learning that her mother is gone, and some of the Hindu rituals that follow, in these poems.  I've been granted special permission to include one of my favorite poems from the book in this post.  This poem especially resonated with me.

 Forever Courage, Beta

I wear the butterfly pendant you gave me, Mumma.  I pull at it,
hoping the wings will set me free.  I want to get away from
everybody.  I want to know how to reach you.  I don't want to live in
the absence of your voice.  I wonder what you would say if I read
my plea.  Suddenly, I hear you whisper in the summer breeze. Never 
lose courage, Beta.  You've always been strong.  I swallow my angst.
Words, I tell you, they stay with me forever.

This sincere and courageous account touched me deeply.  I think that adults who have lost a loved one, especially a parent, will be able to relate to this honest and powerful work.  In the span of just over a year, in 2011 and in 2012, I lost both of my parents, first my mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer in 2010, and then my father.  Although my story is different than Sweta's, there are some similarities.  In 2011, I spent a long Memorial Day weekend worrying about my mother's health, waiting to hear news of her condition.  Soon afterward, like Sweta, I was in flight, traveling on a red eye from CA to NY while my mother was in the hospital, hoping to make it there in time.  Sadly, my mother passed away shortly before I arrived in NY.  While on the plane in the hazy, wee hours of the morning, I either dreamed or imagined or heard my mother say in her distinct voice something like "I am alright, Susan--please don't worry", and to this day I wonder if this was truly her message to me in her final moments. 

Although this book conveys Sweta's loss and sorrow, the poet also shares the joy of her close relationship with her mother.  She describes her mother's beautiful saris as "carrying the scent of sweet cardamom"  and smelling of  "cloves and single malt", her delicious cooking, and many other essential details. Saris and a Single Malt is a beautiful, heartfelt collection that is also a loving, poetic tribute to her mother.  In the Afterword of the book, Sweta talks about how she was able to better cope with her grief and find some peace after the loss of her mother.  It is a hopeful and helpful ending.

Many thanks to Serena from Poetic Book Tours for inviting me to participate in this tour and for providing a copy of this book.  For more reviews and features, please visit the other stops on the tour for Saris and a Single Malt.  I've linked my review to Serena's 2016 Poetry Challenge.

Thank you for reading.  Comments from my readers are welcomed and appreciated.

(PUBLISHING DISCLAIMER: “Forever Courage, Beta” excerpted with permission from the book Saris and a Single Malt, published by Modern History Press.  Copyright (c) 2016 Sweta Srivastava Vikram.  All Rights Reserved.)

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