Tag Archives: Twelve Winters

You Shall Uphold Him

CBR_Logo2The Waxen Poor
by J. D. Schraffenberger

In The Waxen Poor, J. D. Schraffenberger, associate professor of English at Northern Iowa University and associate editor of The North American Review, meditates on “Brother Tom,” apparently a semi-fictional version of his schizophrenic brother. The title of the collection comes from Leviticus 25:35: “And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger …” Schraffenberger explores this special obligation in skillfully crafted poems offering candid observations on the illness, brotherhood, and the parallels between “madness” and poetic creativity.

The poems in this book display grave equanimity in the face of nearly incomprehensible strangeness. It is not clear what one should make of the schizophrenic sibling. He is the loved brother and the paranoiac, the cheerful singer and messianic fanatic, playful child and deeply reticent young man. He both is, and is not, emotionally accessible. To exist in this way is

 To be the living marker of one’s own death…
Is to say to any who’ll listen: Here lies Brother Tom
Of two minds / Lost or won / And writ as water / In the night.

On occasion these forward slashes appear within the lines, which are then both whole and fractured. This device is no mere gimmick as it is used sparingly anthe waxen poord effectively. An uneasy duality appears in other guises as well, most memorably in the conflation of different consciousnesses. “We restless brothers, we unlikely two, recline side by side /…/ Not knowing which one we will be tonight, Him or Me,” the poet writes in “Sleep and his Brother Death.” The boundaries between sanity and insanity, love and aversion, self and other are traversed often enough that they begin to disintegrate.

“Brother Tom” also refers to John Keats’s brother, Thomas, who died of tuberculosis. Keats probably contracted the disease from his brother, and the poet alludes vaguely to the idea of contagion: “I fear my brother’s illness,” he confesses in “To My Brother.” He “[muses] on the unseen meanings in things…on the significance of smoke in the sky…the uneasy rhyme of this with that.” Is there something dangerous, or paranoid, in the way random literary associations shape a poem? In “Song,” Schraffenberger navigates the moment at which a longing to communicate with his brother through innocuous, playful language degenerates into something bleak, as a sort of nursery rhyme takes on a more sinister tone:

O meek dirt eater, you bogus little biddy,
You shabby-chic la-di-doddler,
Come hum the tune with us…
Look, the haystack’s burning, the sheep’s unshorn.
The cow’s gone mad, the boy’s unborn.
O please won’t you sing or whistle at least?

There is risk in entering this world. Even the number 14 becomes troublingly significant. It is the age when Brother Tom had a major psychotic break, the number of years he lived, and also the number of lines in a sonnet. Schraffenberger’s sonnets stand out for their emotional acuity and unforced technical brilliance. The phrasing of “Errare” is hypnotic, tight and vivid, describing Brother Tom’s psychosis against the backdrop of rural Appalachia:

From the wander, the soy and cornfield wander,
To the barb and prick of wire fences rusted orange,
From the settling guiltless, cross-legged among the cows,
To the silent revelation of hoof and tail, mud and clay,
From the quiet coming of cops, hands hovering holsters,
To the rowdy ushering forth, the handcuffs and escort home,

 You rise, brawling, all scrum and froth, all tooth and nail,
Into the heady realm of metaphysical fragility, where
Thought becomes thought becomes thought becomes true,
Where no one can change the dreaming / but you.

The alliteration and ellipsis in “hands hovering holsters” captures the breathless despair of the bystander and witness. In the last line, the forward slash again creates a fissure, curbing an increasingly manic meter and rhyme, pressing back as reality against dream.

Schraffenberger finds inspiration in nature as well as in literature and art history, from John William Waterhouse, Walt Whitman, W. C. Williams, and the Bible, at times reaching across millennia for the perfect image. For instance, he precisely conveys a confusing mix of fascination and alienation by likening an archaic sculpture of a young, heroic warrior to “Mean Tommy with a stink, baseball cap pulled low over the eyes / … here is your lost / Archaic smile—flat, unnatural, timelessly amused.” In this seamless fusion of classical and contemporary themes, the image is both marvelous and disturbing.

Whether in traditional or invented forms or prose poetry, the language of The Waxen Poor is always fluid without a jot of slack, perhaps reminiscent of the work of David Ferry or Tom Sleigh. The collection has a thematic kinship with Sherod Santos’s The Pilot Star Elegies, which also is haunted by the mental instability and death of a sibling. But where Santos offers an anguished, forthright analysis of his sister’s suicide, Schraffenberger’s poems evoke the subtle pain of estrangement with a steady hand and a fine chisel.

There is no pretense of perfect understanding, no bid for closure. In the final poem, Schraffenberger embraces an ongoing vigil, writing of his “brother, born for adversity,” “I’ll need to mourn him more carefully”—yet that would be hard to imagine.

Four-Star Review

July 2014, Twelve Winters Press
$14.99, paperback, 63 pages
ISBN: 978-0989515153

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton


Filed under fiction

A Sensory Feast

CBR_Logo2Weeping with an Ancient God
A Novella
by Ted Morrissey

Ted Morrissey’s Weeping with an Ancient God is a fictional revision of Herman Melville’s own telling of his time spent amongst cannibals. The story begins with Melville and his friend Toby trapped on an island, unable to speak the native language, and unaware of what exactly the cannibals want from them. They over time try to devise a plan to escape.

weeping-with-an-ancient-god-front-coverMorrissey does a great job at the beginning with establishing the isolation of the main character. Immediately the reader is introduced to heavy sensory detail as Melville awakens to darkness and heat, pain throbbing in his leg, remembering whom he now lives among. This tone of darkness is carried throughout, with only small dollops of light. The darkness is found not just amongst Melville’s relationships with the cannibals, or his entrapment on the island, but within his own mind as well. Morrissey lays out a quick page of exposition about how Melville and Toby have come to find themselves on the island. This is done effectively and doesn’t impact the near flawless pace.

Considering the plot takes place some time after Melville has already arrived on the island, it doesn’t feel as if the reader is being tossed into some situation in complete confusion. The story takes its time as Melville goes about the people, trying to understand their customs and what they want from him. There’s always an understanding of what’s happening and who is where, and the movement of the characters flows at a comfortable speed. This also applies to the use of dialogue throughout. None of it feels useless; it all in some way helps the story progress. Only in the last couple chapters does the story lose its rhythm with its climax.

Through Melville, the reader gets strong visuals of the other characters and place. Characters are introduced in great physical description, nothing is left out from head to toe. The beauty of the island (and its few hidden horrors) are also shown in great detail; from the array of colors, vegetation, old bones, and wildlife that are amongst the people, there is rarely a moment where the reader could question what something looks like. The gestures of the characters are also very clear; whether it involves how someone eats a piece of meat or how someone attacks another, the movement is clear and to the point.

With these strong details and a mostly well-balanced pace, the reader is able to dive into the isolation that Melville suffers from. Melville’s questioning of the humanity of these cannibals, and of himself, is apparent through the dialogue (internal and external), and by what he witnesses. The writing here is done with solid purpose to make a concise story. An interesting read for those who are already fans of Melville and are interested in seeing a side of the man behind Moby Dick. In Weeping with an Ancient God there is a full story with no detail to miss. Other than an ending chapter where things could be slowed down slightly, this is an enticing read. It stands as a great little work of existential crisis and isolation, of a man lost at sea.

Three-Star Review

August 2014, Twelve Winters Press
$12.99, paperback, 162 pages
ISBN: 978-0989515160

Reviewed by Michael Pementel


Filed under fiction