Posts Tagged 'Madison Wisconsin'

Future Islands in Madison


Samuel Herring of Future Islands. High Noon Saloon, Madison, Wisconsin. March 27, 2014. Photo: Kate McGinnity.

Last Thursday night’s sold-out Future Islands concert at Madison, Wisconsin’s High Noon Saloon was an opportunity to see something that I’m sure happens from time to time but rarely when you’re privileged to attend the show. The scenario is this: A long-touring band with several indie-label releases is given an unexpected and explosive career boost—in this instance, a March 4th appearance on Late Show with David Letterman and a subsequent viral YouTube video of the performance—and suddenly the smaller venues they’ve been booked into are bursting at the seams. (High Noon Saloon’s capacity is 400.) Tim Jonze, music editor for the UK Guardian, titled a March 6th blog post, “My mind has been blown by Future Islands on David Letterman.”

As mesmerizing as Future Islands singer Samuel Herring is in the Letterman video, it was surpassed a hundredfold on the Madison concert stage. (You can get a pretty good sense of this from another YouTube video of the band performing at SXSW in Austin the week before they hit Madison.) Herring was backed by expert bandmates (Gerrit Welmers on keyboards/programming, William Cashion on bass, and drummer Michael Lowry) who kept the synth-pop groove anchored while Herring ferociously sang, shimmied, thumped his chest, whacked the side of his head, growling one moment, crooning the next, writhing on the stage floor, his voice switching from primal punk to Motown soulfulness on a dime.

At one point in the show, mid-song, Herring’s microphone broke apart, torn wires dangling in his hand. He kept going and led the energized crowd in a singalong by mouthing the words and never missing a beat. “First time that’s happened in eleven years of performing,” he said, laughing, once he was again wired for sound. A young girl in front of us hugged him as he came off stage at the end of the night. She was both gleeful and drenched, as Herring was trailing an ocean of sweat.

Somewhere Piano

Somewhere Piano
Sarah Busse
Mayapple Press 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Begin with the beckoning title of Wisconsin poet Sarah Busse’s Somewhere Piano. Within its pages, we find the eponymous poem doubling down and rechristened as “Somewhere Piano, Again.” It’s a poem about getting things right, not just on piano or paper, but in our heads:

These are the rehearsal rooms of the brain,
strangely echoed, some, and others
strangely dead. Wander once more
the narrow, ill-lit halls.

There’s no poetic triumphalism here. “Somewhere Piano, Again” suggests a painfully stalled dark night of the soul, a writer’s prayer for illumination:

Rehearsing and rehearsing
on the instrument of haunt, reversing again,
and overheard through walls, muffled,
a someone else, anonymous, not quite

in tune, remembered ever, trying
and trying (how much we want)
to get that passage right.

Busse is a rare species of writer: a secular poet of the sacred. She has found a language to illustrate the all-too-brief moments of revelation that sneak into our days, the instances of what theologian Jean-Luc Marion has called “saturated phenomena,” when we’re astonished by unbidden hints of connectedness. Busse’s poem “Flicker,” for instance, begins:

This morning a flock of flickers—flash of red,
flash of yellow at my feet—rose and flew
past the blue turkey-foot, the prairie dropseed.
The grasses nodded their purple heads, bronzed,
lazy in their affirmation … until the wind blew.

Although the moment evaporates in a September breeze, the poet’s own “feathered heart,” in the second stanza, has been altered by the experience: a quickened recognition of “how the honey locust / shivers down its gold and gilds my driveway …” By the third and final stanza, following the trail from prairie to driveway, the poet arrives home with a renewed reverence that continues to draw its airborne imagery from the bird flock seen that morning: “My children toss leaves up to see them / leap and fall and leap again, laugh and beg for more.”

SomwherePianoBusse’s poems have the curious feature—not uncommon in religious poetry from Donne to Dickinson—of never quite being about what they presume to be about. Her work directs our gaze or our contemplation to something beyond the poem’s focus. She’ll grant you a stable ground outside your kitchen window, but then she’ll pull you seductively toward something chaotic and profound, undefined but ecstatically present at any given moment if we choose to engage it, take it on. Here, embedded within a poem framed around her eight-year-old son’s whimsical improvisations on the family piano (“To Robert Cabaste Wind on His Birthday”), a kind of cosmic disturbance invades the morning:

He is playing imagined music for
imagined listeners of imagined radio, the lit
windows of morning kitchens dot the hills
of the Driftless. The music launches,
and a coffee cup suspends, dishes
go unwashed, an argument hangs midair.
Eyes go vacant at the curious passages …

In the final stanza, mirroring her son’s improvised melodies, the poet/mother is inspired to improvise her own morning prayer or hymn, a suburban matins:

Blessings on the marriages of the morning,
blessings on the scrambled kids about to board buses,
the dogwalkers and garbage trucks and gardeners
who will let the music drift over and off
and get on with their variegated days …

Sarah Busse

Busse in the last few years has gained recognition as a tireless proselytizer for poetry, especially in her roles shared with fellow Wisconsin poet Wendy Vardaman, as co-editor of Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press. Verse Wisconsin found its voice—or, to be accurate, voices plural, as in “multitude”—when in the thick of the winter 2011 labor protests in Madison, the magazine’s Facebook page became a living anthology of poets old, new and spontaneously birthed, reacting in real time to a historic political crisis. In January, 2012, Mayor Paul Soglin appointed Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman to a four-year term as Madison’s Poets Laureate.

While two chapbooks preceded it—Quiver (Red Dragonfly Press 2009) and Given These Magics (Finishing Line Press 2010)—this is Busse’s first full-length collection. The real success of Somewhere Piano’s diverse and rich selection of 47 poems can be measured by the fact that Busse’s chilling 2012 Pushcart Prize-winning poem, “Silhouettes,” an account of a home-invasion and sexual assault, is but one example of the high level of artistry on display throughout Somewhere Piano.

[A version of this review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Wisconsin People and Ideas.]

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home
David Allan Cates
Novelas Americanas 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Among many things that novelist David Allan Cates does with unnerving skill in Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is capture a quality we all recognize from dreams in which personalities and situations inexplicably shift and mutate with dizzying speed through layers of time and memory. The challenge for both author and reader is to bring shared meaning and coherence to jumbled time frames and private metaphors. Middle-aged Ben Armstrong, returning to his Midwestern boyhood home and finding himself roiled in disturbing fever dreams, begins to wonder with alarm, “Was there any other way home besides the strange way?”

His brother is turning into a fish. The landscape shimmers with Indian ghost villages sprung to life and pioneer trails bustling with holographic ancestors. Such are the CGI special-effects that the unconscious seems to have perfected long before Ovid’s Metamorphoses reminded us that “everything must change,” or Christopher Nolan’s Inception announced that, “When we’re asleep, we can do almost anything.” Cates’s bold narrative uncannily mirrors the seemingly arbitrary and at given moments terrifying attributes of dreaming with which we’re so intimately familiar. More ambitious still, almost crazy ambitious, the author wants to construct a collective unconscious for us that links Ben Armstrong’s personal shame, as well as our own, to some very large themes on the dark side of American history.

Ben Armstrong has returned home with tons more baggage than just a suitcase. It’s been 25 years since he fled the family farm burdened with guilt over a six-year affair with his brother’s wife, Sara. Compounding the sadness is the family tragedy that Ben and his brother Dan share: the death of their parents in an automobile accident when the siblings were children. Now 50 years old, Ben feels that he has “spent his entire adult life hiding from desire and regret.” Where Ben Armstrong’s experiences and hallucinations might differ from our own in the particulars, they rarely stray from universal psychic wounds like familial grief and romantic longing and loss.

The narrative obsessively circles and picks at formative events in Ben’s life with the persistence of a nagging conscience. “I’m on a journey of self-forgiveness,” he recognizes, although no one warns him it will involve blood-soaked history lessons and willful spirit-guides like his dead mother and an especially feisty dead grandmother. “Now hush and stop shaking,” his grandmother admonishes as she escorts Ben to the suddenly very real site of an impending Indian massacre. He will huddle for warmth among the corpses and phantoms of slain Native American families. “It was a place he knew,” we’re told, “but he couldn’t remember how.” The locale, a Tom Sawyeresque “cave on a bluff above the river,” is the same charged place where a teenage Ben will lose his virginity and where, later, he will regularly meet Sara for adulterous sexual encounters.

Never mentioned by name, the region encompassing the Armstrong family farm strongly resembles the sharp cliffs and forested valleys of southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area (Cates, now living in Montana, is originally from Madison, and spent time on a family farm near Spring Green):

Later, he would remember how everything seemed normal until the car left the main road for the narrow blacktop, winding into the hills where the continental glacier hadn’t quite reached, where hundred-thousand-year-old gullies had become deep hollows between steep wooded ridges. The hollows turned and forked, turned and forked again, and the sky itself narrowed, and he lost track of direction. He drove through barely familiar lowlands riddled with springs and spongy with marsh, past abandoned farms, crumbled cabins, towns with a tavern, a gas station and a church, past rocky ridges casting shadows different from any he’d ever seen before.

David Allan Cates

The landscape—beautifully evoked throughout—literally “grounds” the novel and provides a sturdy platform for the Hieronymus Bosch-like follies and depravities that greet Ben Armstrong during his night journey toward grace and self-absolution. Also like Bosch, Cates’s material can sometimes feel hermetic and inscrutable. There’s a mercifully brief, memorably grotesque episode, for instance, when Ben reaches above his head and pulls from the air “a flying hunk of meat” which he proceeds to eat and which turns out to be his own unattached anus. Whether or not this is Cates’s representation of, say, the Ouroboros self-reflexivity symbol of a serpent devouring its own tail is, well, anyone’s guess (at least it’s my guess).

Does it really matter in a novel as inventive as this one that the weirdness occasionally erupts in a kind of homegrown psychedelic surrealism that’s as outrageous and funny as it is baffling? (For example, a roving news van from which steps a young female TV reporter with Tourette’s whose mic check consists of, “Testing, testing! Do me, do me! Do me like a doggy!”) Some reality-principle elements are perhaps left too tantalizingly vague, such as Ben’s job in “our nation’s capital,” where he’s an engineer working on a laser security system called “The Project.” The shadowy career seems more a product of an underdeveloped narrative thread than sinister ambiguity.

To be sure, this is a story with a lot on its mind and much of it is buried where impulses and childhood trauma take center stage in the guise of symbols and ciphers. Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is David Allan Cates’s fourth novel (his 1992 debut, Hunger in America, was a New York Times Notable Book) and it showcases a writer with an assured style stretching his talent in directions that in all likelihood are as thrillingly uncharted for the author as for the many readers who will respond enthusiastically to this dream of a book.


Recall: A Short Story

Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism

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Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

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