Contributors Archives

Charlotte Bhaskar

The Wondrous Re-Imagining of a Japanese Folktale: Patrick Ness’s ‘The Crane Wife’

The Crane WifeIn the Japanese folktale Tsuru no Ongaeshi, upon which Patrick Ness’s wondrous new novel, The Crane Wife, is loosely based, a young rice farmer rescues a beautiful white crane that has crashed into his rice paddy. The crane’s fall is caused by an arrow still jutting from its wing; the farmer carefully extracts the arrow and bids the crane take care as it flies away. When he returns to his house, the farmer is shocked to find a young woman waiting for him there. She tells him she has come to be his wife and ignores his protestations of poverty. They begin a happy life together; soon the new wife barricades herself in her weaving room, alone with her loom. At her request, the farmer swears never to look inside, and she stays locked in the room for seven days. At the end of the seven days, she emerges, skinny as a rail, and presents her husband with the most beautiful piece of cloth he has ever seen. Sell it at market, she commands him, and there it fetches a high price. She returns to her weaving room and shuts the door. Curious as to the source of his wife’s skill, the farmer breaks his promise and peeks in. There, in place of his wife, sits the great white crane, weaving its feathers on the loom. When the crane sees the farmer, she sadly tells him she is the crane he saved, and that she had wished to repay him by becoming his wife. But now that he knows her true form, she can no longer remain with him. The crane removes the cloth from the loom and gives it to the farmer, then takes to the sky.

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Recognizing the Cadences: Alexander Maksik’s ‘A Marker to Measure Drift’

A Marker to Measure DriftAlexander Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift  (Knopf; 222 pages), boldly repudiates the old chestnut that a writer must write what he or she knows. Jacqueline, Maksik’s protagonist, is a young woman from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Liberia— and now a refugee who has fled to the Greek islands in the aftermath of Liberia’s second civil war. As an undocumented immigrant, Jacqueline ekes out a painful existence on Santorini’s tourist-filled beaches. The novel’s opening thrusts us directly into Jacqueline’s narrowed existence—there is no backstory granted us (yet), only the immediacy of Jacqueline’s hunger and desperation following her escape, and the potency of the memory of her mother, which follows Jacqueline everywhere she goes.  As the novel progresses, Maksis carefully lays out pieces of Jacqueline’s history, giving us only the essential. (We discover that Jacqueline is Liberian, for instance, when she tells a curious tourist so; that she was once well-off when she eats a vacationing family’s leftover scraps of food even as the memory of her mother cautions her that “to be elegant, to be graceful, to be beautiful, we must do everything slowly.”)

It seems clear Maksik chose Jacqueline’s name carefully. Like Jackie Kennedy, she, too, is a witness to brutal murder, the survivor left to reassemble her life amid tragedy. Fittingly, Maksik’s touch is light yet searing when it comes to shaping Jacqueline’s narrative. Never resorting to melodramatics or cliché, Maksik grounds her story in clear prose and demonstrates an equally clear handle on Jacqueline’s physicality and emotional state.

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The Poet Finds His Voice Through the War Reporter: Q&A with Dan O’Brien

Dan O'Brien (photo by Paul Watson)

Dan O’Brien (photo by Paul Watson)

Dan O’Brien is an award-winning Los Angeles playwright and poet whose poetry appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 95 (Fall 2012). His most recently published work, War Reporter (Hanging Loose Press; 132 pages), is a collection of poems focusing on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Canadian reporter and author Paul Watson. We talked to Dan O’Brien via email about his work focusing on the life and career of Watson, a subject, he says, that “has helped me find a way to write both intimately and politically at the same time.”

ZYZZYVA: Before working on these poems, you wrote a play, directed by Bill Rauch, focusing on Paul Watson called “The Body of an American” (2012). Could you tell us more about your choice to address this material through poetry, since (I think?) you might describe yourself first as a playwright, and drama was your initial approach to the material?

Dan O’Brien: I’ve always been fairly fuzzy about genre. Though yes it’s fair to say I’ve spent much of my career writing plays. I got an MFA from Brown University in Playwriting and Fiction (and I continue to write and publish stories and essays from time to time). The truth is that I’ve been writing poems as long as I’ve been writing, but I’ve kept it private, largely. Partly it was working with Paul that gave me the courage and the drive to get these poems in print. Writing about Paul Watson has helped me find a way to write both intimately and politically at the same time, and it’s felt like a revelation.

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Evoking the Physical and Tangible of Art and Life: Éireann Lorsung’s ‘Her Book’

Her Book Her book (Milkweed; 76 pages), the latest poetry collection from Éireann Lorsung, is a surprising and eloquent look into a highly physical, sensuous world. In particular, Lorsung is concerned with the delineation of the (female) self as it relates to its surroundings, both natural and constructed. Through many small moments that are exactingly crystalized, she builds a powerful, wider vision of a woman’s life.

The first part of Her book, “Fifteen poems for Kiki Smith,” revolves around artist Kiki Smith, lingering on Smith’s treatment of the female body (in which she subverts the blatant sexuality traditionally surrounding the female form in art, focusing instead on its fertility and hidden interior), and her treatment of nature, and the mythic and religious imagery linking these two (that is, woman in nature). Each of the fifteen poems is titled after one of Smith’s pieces, and though it’s not necessary, it certainly helps if the reader is familiar with Smith’s work. Continue reading

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Self-Portrait of the Author in ‘the Rush of Life’: Gary Soto’s ‘What Poets Are Like’

What Poets Are LikeFor some reason—the imperative-sounding title, perhaps?—it’s easy to imagine a would-be poet leafing through What Poets Are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life (Sasquatch Books; 236 pages), in expectation of a how-to guide. Such ventures will be somewhat disappointed, at least at first. Gary Soto’s collection of short, autobiographical essays are highly particular and personal, specific to Soto himself. And Soto’s wry, occasionally self-deprecating sense of humor means that, far from extolling the virtues of leading a writer’s life, many of the pieces contained in this collection point out its travails, its small indignities for anyone less of a “big shot” than Stephen King or John Grisham.

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The Beginning of the End: ‘One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses’

One Hundred ApocalypsesLucy Corin has a gift for illuminating the dark and the unsettling through flashes of often absurdist humor, even of beauty. As the title of her new story collection, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (McSweeney’s, 192 pages), suggests, Corin’s imagination is vast. In it, she nimbly shuttles us among a soldier encountering a witch, treasure-guarding dogs, and a girl he knew in high school; a pubescent girl agonizing over her coming-of-age rite, in which she selects a “madman” for her own; a high schooler obsessed with a neighborhood girl who disappears after California begins to burn unceasingly; and a squished slice of angel food cake that happens to represent the end of the world. The fractured leaps in setting, plot, and narrator mirror the chaos of Corin’s chosen theme, keeping the reader off balance.

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Significant as Medieval Texts, They’re Bawdy and Lively, Too: ‘The Fabliaux’

The FabiluaxNathaniel E. Dubin’s collection of Old French comic tales in translation, The Fabliaux, is as deceptive as one of the fabliaux themselves. Published by Liveright, an imprint of Norton, in a sumptuous and hefty hardback (almost 1,000 pages long, including Dubin’s bibliography and explanatory notes), the elegantly designed front cover has the title gold-stamped and centered on a prominent black cross; even the couple demurely posed in a bed above the cross (taken from a medieval manuscript) have gold embossing wreathing their heads, lending them both a saintly air.

All this lends The Fabliaux, as a physical object, a sense of serious, even Biblical scholarliness. But this tone is upended quickly upon even a cursory examination of the contents. (I was reading The Fabliaux while riding to work on a crowded bus, when a middle-aged woman plunked down into the seat next to me. From the corner of my eye I saw her assess the meaty reading material in my hands. She might have assumed I was some sort of dutiful student; then she leaned closer and caught a glimpse of what I was reading. “Trial By Cunt,” proclaimed bold black italics at the top of the page. The woman recoiled as if I’d bitten her.)

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The Dark Denizens of a Debauched Rome: Niccolo Ammaniti’s ‘Let the Games Begin’

Let the Games BeginLet the Games Begin (330 pages; Black Cat/Grove Press) by Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti (and translated by Kylee Doust), is an oversaturated, bordering-on-cartoonish romp founded on a larger-than-life premise. A two-bit Satanic cult based out of Rome, the Wilde Beasts of Abaddon, is desperate to enter the ranks of the truly Evil. Though the Wilde Beasts have multiple instances of viaduct graffiti and a botched orgy/human sacrifice under their belt, a rival cult has recently “disembowelled a fifty-eight-year-old nun…with a double-headed axe.” Thus, their leader, Mantos, a furniture salesman who styles himself the group’s “Charismatic Father,” decides they need to gatecrash a massive gala happening in the middle of Rome.

Hosted by a real-estate mogul who’s converted the grandest public park in Rome, Villa Ada, into his personal safari range, the party is going to entail debauchery of every sort—feasting, hunting  (foxes, lions, and an albino Bengal tiger), and plenty of celebrity hooking-up. Mantos is determined to kidnap the evening’s planned entertainment, Larita, a former deathmetal singer who broke up her band when she converted to Christianity. The Wilde Beasts plan to sacrifice her to Satan in a blaze of gore and glory.

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Betting on a Better Tomorrow in ’90s New York: Ali Liebegott’s ‘Cha-Ching!’

Cha-Ching!Ali Liebegott’s Cha-Ching! (City Lights/Sister Spit; 248 pages) is a book worthy of its pleasingly onomatopoetic title. Though the plot is familiar—lost woman on the edge of thirty moves to New York City out of a desperate need to find herself, but becomes disillusioned by the city’s gritty reality yet manages to hoist herself up by her bootstraps—it is made fresh and compelling because of Liebegott’s optimistic and sincere protagonist, Theo, and her particular struggles as a “sirma’amsir” lesbian in ‘90s San Francisco. And it’s because of Liebegott’s carefully tempered rendering of Theo that the novel offers a subtle and compassionate depiction of addiction and its cycle of despair-and-hope, too.

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A Poet Survives China’s Prison: Liao Yiwu’s ‘For a Song and a Hundred Songs’

For a Song a Hundred SongsViolently quashed protests, wrongful imprisonment, book banning, torture—these acts have become almost expected within the context of political rebellion and its suppression. The painful, familiar components of modern repression are given new perspective, however, in Liao Yiwu’s memoir and new book, For A Song And A Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison (New Harvest Press; 404 pages), translated by Wenguang Huang.

In his book, Yiwu, a Chinese poet, tells the story of his time in prison following the Tiananmen Square protests of June 4, 1989. Though not a protestor or even, as he admits, particularly interested “in mass movements or foreign imports such as democracy, freedom, human rights, and love” before Tiananmen Square, the events of June 4 changed him, as they changed all of China. Upon realizing “art was my protest,” Yiwu began writing government-indicting poetry, notably the poem “Massacre,” and produced a politically charged film, Requiem, alongside other counterculture literary friends. Yiwu and his colleagues were utterly unaware, though, of how closely their movements were being monitored, and one day, as Yiwu boarded a bus bound from his city of Fuling to Beijing, where he intended to screen Requiem before a wider audience, he’s detained by the police and taken to jail.

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