My new chapbook, Café Schilling, is now out! Email me to order your copy!
yohejohn at the gmail!
15 pages. Poems about, and from, traveling in Europe.
Features poems which appeared in ColdNoon, Topology, and The Iconoclast!
Thursday, October 10, 2019
Sunday, October 6, 2019
This review-essay appeared in 2015 at Word Riot, which is now gone, alas.
I would be surprised if anyone reading this remembers The Day of the Triffids, or has even read it—it was out of print in American for many years. The copy I found in the late 70s was an old paperback already, in my parents' eclectic collection—probably my mother's, though maybe actually my father's, from back when he still read books and hadn't yet succumbed to the great god Television. The Day of the Triffids was the first 'adult' novel I ever read, which, I think, was what attracted me to it—certainly wasn't the Hardy Boys or Old Yeller, though, like a lot of science fiction, neither was it inaccessibly difficult for a ten or twelve-year-old—not one of my mom's eastern religion books, or The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe it's because you always remember your first, but in the deluge of sci-fi and fantasy books I read in the years after, I never quite forgot Day of the Triffids, and after reading a crop of recent dystopian novels, all now mostly classed at YA, like The Hunger Games, World War Z, Divergent, Feed, and others (there are a lot of dystopian YA novels nowadays), and having discussions about formative books with my friend Jen, I had to go back and see if 1) Day of the Triffids still held up, and 2) I could learn anything more about myself, and my younger self, from what I was reading back then.
The story begins with the main character and narrator, Bill, waking up in a deserted hospital, after being unconscious for a while, and learning that while he was out, most everyone in the world has gone blind, and that not only that, what everybody took for non-sentient genetically modified plants have pulled up their roots and begun to hunt. I know, I know, in these days of zombies and vampires, the idea of killer plants doesn't sound so killer, but if one is willing to suspend their disbelief about zombies, a killer plant dystopia is at least as plausible. I couldn't have told you then why Triffids imprinted itself on me—the immediate thrill was imagining what I would do if I were one of the lone survivors of the destruction of human civilization—which is still true with the current crop, but as anyone who has thought about science fiction (meaning, I guess, trying to justify it to myself) will tell you, those dystopian worlds are stand-ins (not quite metaphors) (maybe fables) for our own world. In fact, those worlds do not seem so different to us readers than our own world. I read Triffids maybe at age eleven or twelve, not entering a new world but no, feeling that the world had changed. With puberty, I felt like I was waking after being unconscious for a long time, into a mostly deserted world run by things I'd thought of as weird and harmless (adults, and humans in general) but who were in fact scary and dangerous. Also, the people like me, the left-over puberty survivors, were mostly blind and helpless and, if I wanted to survive, I very quickly needed to find others like me, who could see. Also, once I realized that I liked what was called 'science-fiction,' I had a place to go, that I belonged somewhere: in the science-fiction section of the bookstore. Once I started carrying science-fiction books around at school, I began to find the other survivors—kids, mostly boys (though girls, I sensed, weren't killer plants)(or mostly not—cue Newt from Aliens: “Mostly....”) who were reading similar books, and these texts gave us a 'secret language' that the triffids couldn't understand.
The Day of the Triffids was written by David Wyndham, real name John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (!), a British science fiction writer who's other works I've never heard of. He was apparently quite well-known in the 50s and 60s, and though he died in 1969, some of his posthumous writing has been published as recently as 2009. Still popular and read in England, his books went out of print here in the States, until recently, when Triffids and his other most popular novel, The Chrysalids, were re-issued, by The Modern Library, both under the label of a “20th Century Rediscovery.”
What I didn't remember, and maybe just didn't consider back then, was how much the novel is less about the weird evil flesh-eating triffids, than about humans, and Wyndham's thoughts on how exactly humans in a post-disaster world would re-form and survive. Most dystopian books present one form, one way, that the author thinks humans will govern themselves, or, usually, be governed. Wyndham presents many, using the structure of the book, with Bill traveling around England to various groups of survivors, as a way to present different philosophies about the best way to survive: Some as anarachic/communal groups, some as smaller family-sized units, and some (the really bad guys) going back to a form of medieval feudalism, with sighted people ruling estates of blind serfs (who will be fed on ground up triffid gruel). What I like about the novel is that Wyndam's characters have some actual intelligent conversations about the pluses and minuses of each form of government, though, interestingly, the increasing number of triffids force Bill and his fellow survivors to opt for larger groups, with larger areas of protected land.
What the few sighted people do, or don't do, with the now blind rest of the population becomes the big question. Do they take the truly compassionate route, and try and help everyone? Seemingly impossible, and endangering everyone, especially, as if blindness and carnivore plants weren't bad enough, with some kind of sickness, which may or may not be typhoid, or the result of biological weapons, ravaging London and other larger cities. Or, cut their losses and regroup in smaller groups with other sighted people, knowing that the blind people left behind will suffer and die? Not easy decisions, and no decision any character makes in the novel is without some dialogue with another character about its feasibility and morality. Even the 'best' guys (there are no real good guys) that Bill and crew join up with are not without some disturbing new rules, and in any case, in any variation of post-disaster re-organization, the general lot of women seems to always end up as baby-makers, which is the one conversation Wyndham avoids, by having even the main female character, Josella, an independent and intelligent woman before the disaster, and a writer of a novel that seems to be the equivalent of Shades of Grey (ultimate male science-fiction nerd fantasy: to be trapped in a scary new world with a hot female porn writer), happy and willing, and even looking forward to, having babies.
Re-reading Triffids now, I'm just struck at how seminal it was: its influence shows in all kinds of books and movies now, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to Stephen King's The Stand, to José Saramago's Blindness. One of my favorite zombie movies, 28 Days Later (screenplay by Alex Garland, another brit, who wrote The Beach) begins with the same premise of (and I take as an homage to) Triffids: a man waking up in a hospital after an overnight disaster, to find himself one of the few survivors). In fact, I think the whole zombie genre premise (ie zombies spread over the world, small groups of humans survive) comes from Wyndham's novel: just substitute killer plants for zombies. Or apes, say, in Planet of the Apes. Apes and especially zombies seem to make for a better metaphor (for example, racism/slavery, capitalism, AIDS, the invasion of Iraq) though who knows, with the now almost common, though still scary, genetically modified foods, care of the Monsanto cabal, maybe the triffids' time is close at hand! Maybe not even as metaphor!
And what did I learn about my younger self? Well, obviously, the world was full of metaphorically helpless blind people, and metaphorically evil triffids, and I was on my own, surviving the disaster called 'growing up.' And some of my fellow survivors might not be the nicest people either. Nor did compassion for the blind seem to be enough. In fact, it might have been too much: That, to have compassion and try to relieve the suffering of all the metaphorically blind people in the world would make me triffid food. No, best to withdraw, with a few like-minded souls, if I could find them (and especially with a woman who writes porn) and live on an island, where we could survive, and (maybe) figure out how to rid the world of triffids, and repopulate it with our metaphorically non-blind children.
Nothing has changed. I still feel this way.
Saturday, October 5, 2019
This review originally appeared in 2015 at Word Riot, which is now gone, alas.
The Palace of Illusions
by Kim Addonizio
Soft Skull Press 2014
Kim Addonizio's writing goes for the guts—punches of raw common american language, about raw common human relationships, that are also, at times, funny and sexy, with touches of all her street-level poet heroes, like Charles Bukowski, Frank O'Hara, Anne Waldman and (early Satan Says-era) Sharon Olds. I have up to this point mostly thought of Addonizio as a poet, though she has written some novels, and her first collection of short stories, in the box called pleasure, is as unapologetically in-your-face as, say, Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, and I love it. It gives her room to work even more in the lower-class blue collar divey world that other underground writers like Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr. make, if not beautiful, then interesting and sympathetic, and Addonizio, like them, may be showing her (unconscious or not) street Buddhism by showing how beauty can be found anywhere, that the lotus grows in mud.
But now I've shifted how I think of her, as not just a poet, but a writer in general, like Bukowski, because because of her new collection of stories, The Palace of Illusions, out through Soft Skull Press. Some of the stories, like “The Other Woman” and “Blown,” are similar to those in in the box called pleasure—short, fast, and powerful, from the POVs of trashy young women involved with trashy men (some not-so young) the results of which we readers know are doomed, and that they're bad choices. Actually, even the protagonists seem to know that they're making bad choices, and yet seem powerless to choose otherwise, which is how you might determine whether you'll like Addonizio or not: Is that how Real Life feels to you? Kinda out of control, at least temporarily pleasurable, and full of suffering?
Importantly though: even as bad choices are made, none of the young women protagonists refuses to accept responsibility for their actions, which they could in some cases very easily do, like in “Intuition,” when an older married man is breaking up with fifteen-year-old Faith, she briefly thinks about what would happen if she just went public with their affair, and how she could destroy him:
“I sit there, turned away from him on the swing, holding the knife I my lap. I cold turn, before he gets up, and stab him in the heart, and then he really would be dead. I could get away with it. I could say, He touched me between my legs. He forced me. He took me to the Tip Top Motel, and he said he would hurt me if I ever told. Everyone knows what men to to girls; people would believe is was self-defense. No one would know the truth.” (183-4)
But, she doesn't, which is why I like her—or, well, at least sympathize with her—and other Addonizio characters. It's not so much about ethics—Faith, obviously, doesn't like the man anymore, and has lost respect—but 'owning' your actions, realizing the inevitability of effect, from a cause that she, less than he, put in action. Which might horrify some readers, or make them go tsk tsk, but whatever Addonizio's characters are, they're not victims, or they don't think of themselves that way, and her stories are not about being politically correct.
“Intuition” is my favorite story in the collection. It's got the gutsy darkness of earlier Addonizio stories, but it's longer, and more in depth. If earlier stories (and, again, some in this collection) are more similar to her poems—capturing a short moment in time—this story has time to build, and has great passages like this:
“The thing is, you keep hoping. With each boy, you think maybe it will happen: he'll look at you a certain way, he'll get you, and your search will be over. I've been searching since I was thirteen, with one boy after another.” (163).
Hard to remember maybe (though funny too) that that's a fifteen-year-old-girl speaking, and yet Addonizio's talent (and this goes for her poetry too) is that she can write something in plain american speech that sounds easy to articulate/write/say, but isn't, and yet captures how anyone, fifteen to fifty, really feels, even when they're fucked-up messes: they still capture very human situations and feelings.
Other stories in The Palace of Illusions are more along this tone and strategy. Some would say they're more mature, but that would imply Addonizio's shorter pieces aren't as good. They're just different. Still, she is experimenting with a more formal, controlled, style. What these stories remind me of is City of Boys, a collection of short stories by Beth Nugent, which I thought was one of the best books of the 90s, though Nugent dropped away after that, and it's out of print, so I'm not sure many readers will get that comparison. But Nugent was coming from Hemingway's darker short works, and Marguerite Duras, and Joyce Carol Oats, as is Addonizio.
She's also experimenting with different ages, both younger—with the poor girl from “Beautiful Lady Of The Snow,” who you just want to hug and take far away from her mother and life—and the nameless woman in “In The Time of the Byzantine Empire,” the middle-aged academic that proves making bad choices is not just the domain of young people. And there's an older character, Ruth, in “Cancer Poems,”dying of cancer and taking a community college poetry class in order to maybe write a book she can leave behind for her granddaughter.
Addonizio is also, in a few stories, experimenting with fairy tales, and one vampire. These interest me less, though I acknowledge that other readers might find them preferable to the punch-in-the-guts stories. And even whe Addonizio writes about seven dwarves, say, her narrator still talks/sounds 'street smart'. The vampire is a teenager in college. Or, she's half-vampire, her dad is full vampire. The details are less important than the effect, of an insecure young woman with low self esteem, who can still, with (dark) comedic effect talk about stalking people to drink their blood.
Addonizio apparently being Addonizio, none of the characters in The Palace of Illusions (with the exception of Ruth, the cancer non-survivor) is what we'd call likeable. Relatable, yes: we've all done things in our lives that we regret or are not proud of (ie, we're fuck-ups just like everyone else)(or we feel that way)(or I do—if you don't maybe this collection isn't for you and you can just renew your subscription to The New Yorker). So, sympathy, yes. Pity, definitely. Interesting, for sure. And these types of characters can be harder to stay involved with beyond a short story. The one Addonizio novel I've read, My Dreams Out In The Street, I found difficult, not because of the style but because of the two main characters, and the awful choices they make in their lower-class lives. They're interesting, yes, but following them for two hundred pages and continuing to feel any kind of sympathy is a hard ask, though it apparently has a cult following.
Addonizio also written two fairly popular and well-received 'how-to' books on the craft of poetry, Ordinary Genius, and A Poet's Companion, co-authored with poet Dorianne Laux (another street-ish poet, though more interested in the erotic than the rough) both of which include short essay-chapters on writing as a process and way of life, as well as exercise-prompts that could be used on one's own, or in poetry workshops. What I would love is to read some critical essays from her, in maybe the style of Tony Hoagland, just to see how she thinks about other poets and poetry, though the truth is I'd just love to read anything by her.
Actually what I'd really love to do is jam with her sometime, since she also plays blues harp (harmonica) in a band and at open mics, and this seems perfectly fitting—she's not pop (too shocking and rough-edged for the prudish mainstream) and she's not jazz (though she has an improvisatory fun feels at times, her subject matter is too dark) and neither is she heady classical (no 'too many notes' texts here—stark versus ornamental). No, her writing is from the bars, from the blues that come from real human working class relationships—the sadness and sexiness and fucked-up-ed-ness of things never quite working out, as all relationships never really ever quite work out, even when they do (and they don't).
After reading the last installment Best American Short Stories, I feared that I was losing interest in short fiction, period. But Addonizio restores my faith and interest. Good edgy fiction is out there, with publishers like Soft Skull Press, we just may have to search a little harder. That said, I don't know why The Palace of Illusions wasn't picked up by a bigger publisher. For all that I love Addonizio's underground feel, that's me being like those music listeners who like their underground bands to stay underground, when really it feels like she's about to explode.
Thursday, October 3, 2019
Coming soon! My new poetry chapbook, Café Schilling: Poems from Europe.
Experiment: email or DM me with an address, I will send you a copy, and you pay what you think it's worth. yohejohn at gmail.com
Experiment: email or DM me with an address, I will send you a copy, and you pay what you think it's worth. yohejohn at gmail.com