The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan
David Allan Cates
Satellite Press 2016

Reviewed by Bob Wake

CatesPoemsDavid Allan Cates, the author of five novels (most recently the award-winning Tom Connor’s Gift), has not until now published a collection of his poetry. The assured voice that emerges from the nineteen poems in The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan shares a sensibility that admirers of his fiction will recognize: politically engaged, erotically charged, and remarkably fluid in shifting between closely observed naturalism (especially of Central America, where Cates does medical aid work) and dreamlike surrealism.

If a lovesick Claude Monet were inspired to peel off his paint smock and dive naked into his beloved water lilies, he might sound something like the besotted narrator of Cates’s poem, “You Could Have Had Me”: “Just so you know, I’ve taken to floating on the fish pond at night / My cock a lily // Chest an empty / Turtle shell without you.” The playfulness of “You Could Have Had Me” comes at a price. There is regret that stings (“The echoing howl of everything I did and everything / I didn’t do”) and an immeasurable sadness (“Then I close my eyes and smell precious / Failure, / Feel on my skin the electric rain / Of bewilderment”).

Love in a Cates poem can be life and death. In “The Purpose of Kissing,” sensuality has the explosive charge of a suicide-bomb trigger:

Think of it like this: lovers
hold tiny detonation devices
on their tongues, hot invisible
wires attached to distant charges
strategically placed.

Real-world violence is often right around the corner in Cates’s work. In the poem “San Pedro Sula,” for instance, “Nothing says good morning / like gunshots at dawn, and she, her feet in snow, / steps past pine and hemlock toward a cold car / she hopes will start.” To situate love honestly in the historical moment is to recognize both our fragile impermanence and our connectedness to landscapes alive with ghosts: “Some / were important and others weren’t / and were slaughtered / because they lived on the other side of the river / or down in the valley … Sometimes / they loved— / did I mention that?—like we do” (“You and Me and the Dead”).

It is David Allan Cates’s novelistic eye for detail and the sinister anecdote that breathes so much life into the opening two stanzas of a poem like “What with Light We Might Imagine”:

Before dawn, you greet hotel maids
chatting music, step around dog shit
on the clean cobbled sidewalk past garbage
trucks and taxis in the cold. After
a long night of righteous missiles
over the holy land, the echo of ¡puta
madre! has dissolved down the block
and the fairy glow of streetlights guides
you toward a paling sky, Cinco de Mayo
and coffee.

Still squinting from the Santa Martha
bus, you walk into the shade past armed
guards on broken chairs and the same
one who blocked your way to leave that first
afternoon, said it’s too late, you’ll have to stay
the night inside. Remember the dark
in your throat, the sudden glint in his eye,
a prison joke. Ha-ha.

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan is an ambitious all-digital project (available in Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords editions) from Satellite Press. Filmmakers were commissioned by the Satellite Collective to create videos using audio of Cates reading. Two online videos have appeared so far, the title poem (by filmmakers Tim van der Meer and Sietske van der Veen) and the poem “Good Luck” (by filmmaker Kate MacDonald).

Rosebud 60

issue60Rosebud 60 (Fall/Winter 2015) is a beauty. There’s the joyous cover art by featured artist Toni Pawlowsky. Inside, for starters, you’ll find all five winning essays in Rosebud’s eighth biennial X. J. Kennedy Award for Nonfiction (which I had the pleasure of co-judging with editor Rod Clark): Grand Prize winner Chris Ellery (“A Boy of Bethany”), and runners-up Jennifer Arin (“Adrián de Sevilla”), Katherine Baker (“No Gas, No Soap in Cuba”), Joan Frank (“The Where of It”), and Brett Alan Sanders (“Attractions of Barbarity, or Dreaming a Complete Argentina”). The winning essays this year are international in scope with timely and thought-provoking visits to Jerusalem, Paris, Havana, and Buenos Aires.

There’s much more goodness to unpack in Rosebud 60, from poetry by Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Thich Nhat Hanh, to the “medical science fiction” of Dr. Tatsuaki Ishiguro (“The Hope Shore Sea Squirt”). Even a graphic short story (“What Is” by Mort Castle) illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre. And we’re still only scratching the surface. Regular features include top-of-their-game work from Rod Clark, P. S. Mueller, and Rick Geary. Guest art director Kathy Sherwood (filling in for Parnell Nelson, sidelined with health concerns, but returning for Rosebud 61) has given the magazine a sleek presentation.

Thurston Moore in Madison

Thurston Moore in
Madison 9/11/15 at the High Noon Saloon. Photo: Bob Wake.

We stood ridiculously close to Thurston Moore at his High Noon Saloon show (his band included former Sonic Youth bandmate and drummer Steve Shelley, My Bloody Valentine bassist Debbie Googe, and guitarist James Sedwards). No Sonic Youth material. Played a large portion of his recent album The Best Day and tunes from an upcoming album titled Rock ’n’ Roll Consciousness. For a 57-year-old punk/noise band innovator from the distant 80s, he nearly convinced me when he declared at one point, “I’ve been waiting forever to grow old” and “old is the new young.” Music ran the gamut from classic-sounding Neil Young rockers to trippy Fripp/Eno guitar instrumentals to blistering noise, sometimes all within the same song.

Paradise Drive

Paradise Drive
Rebecca Foust
Press 53 2015

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Paradise_Drive_by_Rebecca_FoustRebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive achieves considerable force by using the precision of a classical poetic form—the sonnet—to portray something that is, by contrast, messy and contemporary: Our post-9/11 American landscape of rapacious materialism and spiritual hunger. Foust’s sonnets give us a California antiheroine named Pilgrim (“Waist-deep in bright ruin, she labors to sing, / wondering if wanting is, after all, all / there is”). When attending posh Marin County cocktail parties, Pilgrim prefers to cloister herself with books in wealthy homeowners’ bathrooms. She is haunted by hardscrabble childhood memories (“Her father smelled like failure because / he could not pay the bills”), as well as more recent hurts such as the bullying of her autistic son (“Yes, Pilgrim was pissed, / her son razzed every day, maybe twice: / ‘Got Ritalin?’ And about what brick does, / on contact, to a child’s perfect face”).

Consumer products function like satirical pop-up ads throughout Paradise Drive: Botox, Jiffy Pop, Tupperware, Adidas, Real Housewives, Manolo stilettos, d-Con, Prius, Land Rover, Escalade. However, when Foust brings us face to face with what appears to be September 11th, 2001 in New York City, in the deeply moving poem “the fire is falling,” the poet’s world is suddenly shorn and diminished—fallen—in lowercase. Ground Zero becomes in Foust’s sonnet a kind of negative theology, leaving unnamed that which is incomprehensible:

a september wedding back at the cape—
three days without kids—then he’ll work
in new york while she flies back
to san francisco alone—a good plan
till she misses her plane—she’s en route
to boston when the fire is falling
and he’s in midtown—the circuits jammed
and she’s holding hands with a stranger
in the qwik-stop—then sitting on the curb
for a long time—for a long time dialing—
the fire still falling when he picks up—
the plume somewhere behind him—the fire
falling—as it always has—this close—
it has to be this close before she sees

At its most playful, Paradise Drive is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s recent film, Goodbye to Language, which cedes several minutes of screen time to the ennobled perceptions of a dog. In Foust’s sonnet “We Dogs,” a pampered California canine’s heightened senses come alive: “Here, Mt. Tam / compounds and distills the exotic smells / of wildcat spoor steamed on noon trails, / and the creeks leap with salmon in spawn.” The dog’s owner, Pilgrim, will share the animal’s final moments with us in another poem, “Refractory”: “Agonal breath, / the vet said, before apnea and death.” And Pilgrim will be reminded of her own father’s mournful alcoholic demise, subsequently revealed to us in the elegiac “The Truth.”

Rich in literary allusions—many of which are deciphered in the author’s entertaining endnotes—Rebecca Foust’s sonnets work together seamlessly as a book-length narrative. Paradise Drive’s Pilgrim is a complex and flawed everyperson whose quest for “options” is timely and universal: “Maybe the chance / to do an angstrom of good, make beauty / or protest or laughter.”

The Humbling

HumblingPosterLate night streaming on Vudu: The Humbling is an adroit adaptation of Philip Roth’s novella. Co-scripted by Buck Henry, who adapted The Graduate and Catch-22 for Mike Nichols. Al Pacino as a morose suicidal actor. Greta Gerwig is his bisexual love interest. Zaniness ensues. Comparisons to Birdman are not misplaced: The Humbling employs fantasy sequences (in a departure from Roth’s novella) that dramatize Pacino’s scrambled state of mind, including a Birdman-like dream of Pacino locked out of a theater mid-performance. The movie substitutes a more ambiguous ending than the novella’s brutal finish, but it’s well worth a look. Directed by Barry Levinson of Rain Man and Wag the Dog.

Tom Connor’s Gift

Tom Connor’s Gift
David Allan Cates
Bangtail Press 2014

Reviewed by Bob Wake

The time frame of David Allan Cates’s bravura new novel, Tom Connor’s Gift, covers roughly three weeks that Janine McCarthy spends alone in a Montana cabin both evading and confronting her grief over her husband Mark’s recent cancer death. Janine, a 49-year-old doctor, is in a bad way, not even certain she wants to join her two grown children for Thanksgiving back at their family farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin. She’s soon drinking more than she should. Smoking cigarettes. Neglecting her appearance. The cluttered cabin begins to smell bad from piled garbage. She can’t muster the energy to name the small dog she’s acquired, simply christening him “Puppy.” Cates fashions a rich and elaborate narrative by recognizing that we are never really “alone” with grief. Memories loom large and become persistent companions. Reality takes on the heightened near-mystical quality of a waking dream.

Consider, for instance, Janine’s standoff with a bear snooping and foraging ever closer to the cabin:

I sit up in bed and turn my feet onto the floor and struggle with my boots. I suddenly remember the terrible, slow breathing of the bear through the door and remember shooting the pepper spray and it feels as if it were a dream. Did I really do that? Did I really have a bear right outside the door and still dare to open the door? Did I spray into the wind?

After all, we experienced the bear at the door too—at least we read about the bear in Janine’s own telling—and the pepper spray blowing back into Janine’s face causing acute distress to her eyes and throat. Pretty much, we’re convinced. But other times, Janine imagines seeing the bear outside in the shadows. On another occasion, the bear’s face appears at the cabin window and morphs into the smiling face of her dead husband. Despite her steely ER-tested nerves, Janine warily muses: “Do dream memories and other memories get stored in the same place? And if you forget which memory is a dream and which is a waking event, does that mean you’re insane?”

Deeply entwined with Janine’s story is the parallel narrative of the novel’s eponymous gift-giver, Tom Connor. They were briefly lovers when Janine was sixteen and Tom was twenty. Sorted into stacks on a table in the cabin are nearly one hundred and fifty letters she subsequently received from Connor—freelance journalist, frustrated novelist, drunkard—through the years. Janine doesn’t merely share many of Connor’s vivid letters with us, she struggles to contextualize them for us and for herself. The violence that Tom Connor is witness to in 1980s Central America—era of the CIA-funded Contras and the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—is unflinchingly recounted. (Cates’s work has never shied away from articulating the brutality at the heart of so much U.S. history, most notably in his powerful 2008 novel on the subject of slavery, Freeman Walker.)

David Allan Cates. Photo: Bangtail Press.

Cates is a seasoned storyteller—this is his fifth novel—and Tom Connor’s Gift is awash in stories that are by turns raucous, hair-raising, and heartfelt. The author orchestrates a series of climactic chapters that range across memory and time with breathless page-turning dramatic force. While Cates has spoken of his new novel as completing a “homecoming trilogy” begun with his well-received 1992 debut Hunger in America and 2012’s award-winning Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, each of these novels can be experienced on their own as satisfying individual works. Taken together, however, they represent a unique and eye-opening expression of epic American themes encompassing landscape and desire, love and loss, social justice and historical accountability.

Ad for “The G.O.D. Club” in Madison Magazine


Ad for The G.O.D. Club appears in the September 2014 issue of Madison Magazine.

Ashes and Diamonds


1997 Northwestern Univ. Press edition of Ashes and Diamonds.

The 1948 Polish novel Ashes and Diamonds by Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909-1983) is probably less appreciated today as a literary work in its own right than as the basis for Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 film adaptation. The wildly entertaining movie, designated an “Essential Art House” choice in Criterion’s DVD catalog, owes more to Orson Welles’s baroque cinematic influence than Andrzejewski’s blend of socialist realism and tragic irony. Both novel and film are compact (239 pgs./103 mins.), while at the same time reflecting a panoramic near-epic cross-section of Poland’s clashing societal and political factions at the close of the Second World War. Neither the novel nor the film have escaped criticism over the years, although for different reasons.

Poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), who defected from Communist Poland in 1951, wrote a scathing smackdown of his former friend Jerzy Andrzejewski in The Captive Mind (1953), the Nobel Prize-winning poet’s classic study of writers and intellectuals “adapting” themselves to totalitarian regimes. Milosz—who refers to Andrzejewski pseudonymously as “Alpha, the Moralist”—is especially tough on what he sees as pulled-punches in Ashes and Diamonds (discussed at length in The Captive Mind without mentioning the novel’s title). According to Milosz, the novelist was nicknamed “the respectable prostitute” by fellow-writers who saw Andrzejewski as a Stalinist suck-up.


Zbigniew Cybulski in Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Film director Andrzej Wajda, in a fascinating interview included on the Ashes and Diamonds Criterion DVD, talks candidly of having initially refused to read the novel because of its state-sanctioned popularity in the 1950s. In the notes to a 2007 translation of Andrzejewski’s earlier novel, Holy Week, commentator Oscar Swan writes: “The year 1954 found Andrzejewski politically sanitizing a new edition of Ashes and Diamonds, which had become required reading in the schools.”

1980 Penguin paperback edition of Ashes and Diamonds.

1980 Penguin paperback edition of Ashes and Diamonds.

German writer Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), like Milosz a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is altogether kinder to Ashes and Diamonds in his introduction written for the 1980 Penguin “Writers from the Other Europe” paperback edition of the novel, and reprinted in the 1997 Northwestern University Press edition. Almost as an aside, Böll notes that “the reader feels” that Andrzejewski “has a sense of kinship” with the novel’s “young Socialist and Communist functionaries.”

While both the Penguin and NUP editions of Ashes and Diamonds use D. J. Walsh’s 1962 British translation (with its battle-hardened Polish adults and nihilistic teenagers alike saying “cheerio” and “bloke” and “rotter” to one another), only the NUP edition includes five pages of previously deleted text. No explanation is given as to whether this was perhaps material removed by censors or, more likely, added in later to placate censors (possibly for the 1954 “sanitized” edition). A long speech by Stefan Szczuka, the sympathetically portrayed Communist Party official marked for assassination by the Polish underground, goes on and on for a mind-numbing two full pages of Soviet-era boilerplate:

For only those truly die who believe in isolation or who serve false truths which are illusory and incompatible with the one great truth of our time. Future generations will only despise them and will blame them or condemn them to oblivion. Those people, however, who have understood the forces of history and who have been in solidarity with their comrades, will discover in the future the praise of soldiers fighting for humanity, for one’s own fatherland and for mankind, for the world order.

Wajda sharpened the book’s edges by infusing the film with the Catholic iconography of Polish nationalism and by emphasizing the charged performance of Zbigniew Cybulski as the Home Army resistance fighter tasked with assassinating Szczuka. The combined effect was a cleverly coded rebuke to the postwar Soviet control of the country. Although the movie’s striking visual metaphors have sometimes been criticized as heavy-handed, the stylistic strategy clearly succeeded in Wajda’s intended aim of circumventing Communist Party censorship.

The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart

commotionI recently had the pleasure of writing a back cover blurb for Norma Gay Prewett’s poetry collection, The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart, now available from Finishing Line Press (cover art by the author). Four of the poems appeared online in the Spring 2010 issue of Cambridge Book Review with audio of Gay reading her work: “Cottonbound,” “Knowing that Most Things Break,” “Calling You Back,” and “Bill of Lading.”

—Back cover blurb—

Norma Gay Prewett is a gloriously tactile poet, whether sharing childhood memories of her school-janitor father in ‘Shorty’ (‘scraper of Pleistocene gum / from under chairs…’), or ‘Grape Jellying at the End of the Century’ (‘Never will the grape be as sweet, the juice as hot’). She is a pragmatist of earthly practicalities (‘Knowing that Most Things Break’) and a fearless limit-tester in love (‘Finding the Bottom’). A bracing American wilderness beckons and challenges us in the title poem, ‘The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart’ (‘Opening the cabin on April 29, we found snowpack / Had kneecapped the bee-keeping shack…’). Prewett’s survival skills are hard-won and true. You can trust her navigation. Her poetry is a GPS tracker for our lost souls.—Bob Wake, editor, Cambridge Book Review

Dave & Phil Alvin in Madison

Dave & Phil Alvin, July 25, 2014, High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin.

Dave & Phil Alvin, July 25, 2014. High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin. Photo: Bob Wake.

A capacity crowd at Madison’s High Noon Saloon last night greeted brothers Dave and Phil Alvin performing with their three-piece backup band, The Guilty Ones. In a word (or two) we were blown away. They played for two and a half hours without a break, including four encore numbers. The Big Bill Broonzy tunes from their new album, Common Ground, were only a portion of the ambitious set list, which ranged through 80s Blasters songs, material from Dave’s solo albums, and a cover of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.” Phil’s voice was spellbinding and powerful, confirming a miraculous recovery from 2012 health concerns.

Couple of highlights: a monstrous drum solo from Lisa Pankratz on Dave’s song “Dry River”; and Dave telling the story of composing “What’s Up With Your Brother?” after a Madison solo gig a few years ago at High Noon Saloon: he kept getting interrupted on his way to use the bar’s bathroom by audience members asking about his brother. The story, of course, was followed by Dave and Phil’s bang-up rendition of the song.

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