Upgraded to

Heather McHugh
(Copper Canyon Press)
Heather McHugh seems addicted to puns anagrams, rhyme, near-rhyme, paradox, confusion, doubling back, and other tricks to keep us involved in her poetry. The "Space Bar,"

    Lined up behind the space bartender
    is the meaning of it all, the vessels
    marked with letters, numbers,

turns into another kind of bar, "as TV/passes for IV" and then turns all a-jumble at the end, with "the space cadets and dingbats."

God turns up repeatedly, in one, "Good Old God," he is a combination of Zeus and Old Testament, and a loud one to boot: "He's a hoot ... his penchant for law, and his playing with volts..."

Specifically God is not only Greek ("And by Jove") but also of that famous passage in Genesis avoided by all but the sauciest fundamentalist, the Divine Mooning ("what a backside he turns!"). Finally he turns into the existential joker of love-make: "Here's a puddle to/come from, a crack and a crotch." "He's a hoot" she proposes, biblically repeating herself.

She can be pure imagist. In "From the Tower" the definition of madness is that of the wild weed overtaking the country:

    Insanity is not a want of reason.
    It is reason's overgrowth, a calculating kudzu.

All the tricks are here. Internal rhyme ("the human beings flock to this/still-living stand of minded pine.") Puns word-shaping and morphing, with unexpected turns:

    The shapes are perfect
    triangles. The range
    has been arranged to hide the wild.
    (But every old saw has a human child.)

Bad puns atop good ones, in --- of all places --- "Woolworth's floral aisle:" ("because the lineages/love Linnaeus, he's the/rex lex). Puns and anagrams was what The New York Times puzzle-page called them. McHugh:

    You lose your
    grip, you could say.
    That handy bag.

Some of us are suckers for poetry that plays tricks on us, and I was once gaga over Dylan Thomas in the white giant's thigh, with his "craft and sullen art." McHugh can be large and crafty like that, sometimes reminds me of Billy Collins at his best, or better, the Ooga-Booga master, Frederick Seidel. Ooga.

--- A. W. Allworthy
Go to a
from this collection

Is Life Like This?
A Guide to Writing
Your First Novel in
Six Months

John Dufresne
One must always look at these titles with a jaundiced eye: Write a novel in six months? I can be jaundiced because the shelves of my closet are littered with half-formed, half-baked novels that turned sour in the first three weeks and made me want to thrash them to death mainly for defeating my desire to be another Hemingway. This novel-write business, just like getting old, is not for the faint-of-heart. You must plunge ahead.

And if you are going to do it, I can't think of a better way of doing it than being guided by Dufresne. He is loaded with ideas of how to get this stuff down on paper (or into your computer). He is very specific on exactly which steps to take, and when to take them. For example: Don't make an outline ... it's a waste of time and might lock you in at a point when you must be free. But you must lock yourself in your brown study and write and write and write, no excuses permitted: no email, no telephone, no kids, no one knocking on the door.

    If you want to be a novelist, write. Every day. Faithfully, serenely, and diligently. You have to want to write so badly that nothing, not jobs, not friends, not family, not TV or the movies, will stop you. You want it so badly you won't be deterred.

"Start by jotting notes. Your own procrastination is your first obstacle. Your lack of confidence may be the second. The confidence comes with the writing. You are the only person who can stop you from writing your novel."

Dufresne offers a dozen "germs" for your writing:

  • A Line. You can find them everywhere in what you read.
  • A list. Your story or novel begins with a list.
  • A title. What does the title suggest to you (he offers up five possible titles).
  • A character. He offers up a couple.
  • A situation. The situation should be odd and perhaps be troubling.
  • An event. A high school prom. A death in the family. The birth of triplets. A frightening diagnosis.
  • An image. The smell of pencil shavings.
  • A subject. A drought. Mountain climbing. Redemption. Foreclosure.
  • An oddity. Human body parts (stored in a freezer). A suicide. A crane. ("Anton Chekov had a pet crane in Yalta, a raggedy, one-legged creature that followed Chekhov around.)"
The hook in Is Life Like This? is Dufresne's enthusiasm. He will start off telling you something about the art of writing and then will veer off jauntily, telling how to plot a novel and before you can say "Boo" he has already written the first three pages of your novel for you. He makes it a joy ... and if I weren't beyond the point of being able to sit in front of the computer for six or eight or ten hours a day, I tell you I would've taken the bait, would've created something to ship off to the publishers as of yesterday. I defy you to get into this one without getting an itch to try your hand at it (although Dufresne doesn't let you think for a moment it's going to be easy).

Once, dozens of dozens of years ago, I got to know the writer Tom Robbins and while he was working on Another Roadside Attraction. As he was working on it, I watched him turn haggard. It wasn't until he finished and shipped off the manuscript that he return to being the boyish man-in-a-white-suit I had first come to know in Seattle, so long ago. Writing a novel is no joke.

§     §     §

Dufresne sprinkles quotes around the pages like pansies in the garden, and most of them don't make much sense in the context of writing a novel, but I did like (and remember) this from Nabokov's Speak Memory, "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of life between two eternities of darkness."

Too, this from Céline: "If you have no imagination, death is nothing. If you do, it is too much."

The only fault I could find with Is Life Like This? is (1) it almost made me waste yet another year constructing a novel (which, for me, is about as constructive as building a car-bomb), and (2) Dufresne plugs his own novel, Louisiana Power and Light just one time too many.

That's OK, though: his passion for his craft shines through every page, and may, indeed, take a shine to you.

--- Lolita Lark

A Bomb in
Every Issue

How the Short, Unruly Life of
Ramparts Magazine
Changed America

Peter Richardson
(The New Press)
People who lived through the 50s and early 60s of the United States have no idea how very dull it was. It was as if the country had blown up into a giant Dubuque. J. Edgar Hoover, John Foster Dulles and awful senators like Pat McCarren of Nevada and Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi ran the whole show.

If you resisted the prospect of nuclear war, the wasteland of America with radioactive cities ... you were considered to be unpatriotic. If you had questions about our involvement in Korea, they'd tap your telephone and audit your 1040. It was a jingoistic mess.

Where could you turn? Well, you could ship out ... as did the blacklisted writers who went to Europe or to Mexico. Or you could seek out the few sympathetic writers and outlets for companionship: The Nation, The New Yorker, Saturday Review, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and, on occasion, The New York Times or The Washington Post.

For those who lived in New York or the Bay Area, there was WBAI or KPFA, but such was the temper of the times that you felt that you should keep the volume down, like the dissidents in France, Germany or Italy who listened to the BBC during WWII.

It was a sad time for the nation, but in 1962, Ramparts magazine appeared on the scene. It was supposed to be a "liberal" Catholic journal, under the aegis of the fretful Edward M. Keating. But under the direction of Robert Scheer and Warren Hinckle, it became one of the great political journals of America. For six or seven years, it ventured into the previously taboo areas: black power, Viet Nam, sexism, the power blocs that ran the nation, ecology, the vices of the CIA, the assassination of JFK, and the draft.

Ramparts did all this with style, flare, and drama. Most importantly, it gave other American magazines and newspapers the information to investigate the wrongs of America. It was a great magazine, it's a great story, and Richardson does it justice ... but with one failing.

He spends too much time on the black power nexus and politics that, at times, went beyond the pale. Ramparts featured Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote about Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party with sympathy, at a time when the blacks scared the hell out of the rest of the world of journalism.

They were an important part of the Ramparts story, but by concentrating on them and their chaos, their saber-rattling, and their various acts of frustration, Richardson is making it hard for the reader to visualize the blaze of reason that the magazine represented.

As an old boozer, I recall with special relish the very short-lived Ramparts Weekly, a beautifully produced newspaper (as distinctive in layout and design as The Wall Street Journal). One issue dedicated itself to how to drink while driving. To have your martini while tooling down Interstate Five or Ten, you might have to give up the frosted glass and maybe even the olive. Be sure to have a place under the seat where you could stow the shaker in case of attack (by the Highway Patrol).

And always keep a tube of Pepsodent handy for use before rolling down the window to speak with a representative of the ossifers of the law hic.

--- Robert Eiger
Go to a
from Warren Hinckle's
memoirs of

My Men
Malika Mokeddem
Laura Rice,
Karim Hamdy,

(University of Nebraska Press)
Malika Mokeddem grew up poor in Algeria. Through luck and persistence, she put herself through college and medical school, and now practices nephrology in southern France. My Men is a proclamation of Malika's independence and her distaste for the "morality enforcers" and the "moral police" of Algeria.

But as the title implies, it is the loves of her life that fill the pages: Jean-Louis, Mus, Bellal, Nourrine, Saïd, Jean-Claude and several who remain anonymous.

§     §     §

Malika is a staunch feminist fighting against the Algerian culture that sees women as second-class citizens. But another part of her being is a half-love, half-hate of love.

She tells us how much she is afraid of falling in love, how much she values being by herself, visiting her clinic, cooking for herself: "I love solitude so much. It holds so many charms for me! Always has."

    Men represent bondage: the dictates of boys, beginning with my brothers and then those at school later on.

Nationalism to her is "a perversion." Solitude, perhaps, is "learning at last to love myself."

One can't be too sure. The catalogue of men that come and go in and from her life is a little overwhelming. In this, she strikes the reader as being in exile not only from Algeria ... but from herself.

Mokeddem grew up very poor in Kenadga, and every man she has taken up with from the get-go seems to be well-off: doctors preferred. The story of her escape is dramatic, but once she makes it in Paris, the reader's interest flags with the repetitious love-count.

The kernel of My Men is not a story of ten or so male lovers (mostly "blond Kabyles," the Berbers of northern Algeria), nor is it her disenchantment with the baffling politics of her home-country. Rather, it is of her day-to-day work with those on dialysis, those who come to her clinic three times a week to be "attached to their machines."

    We're like a group of tragic actors condemned to play the same scene over and over, in real life, without any spectators.

The machines "have that closed look of arrogant certainty: 'Without us you're dead. See you tomorrow.'"

It is her love for her patients that shines through, that overrides the endless affairs, that goes beyond her writing and her painting and exotic cooking. "While they are proud of their origins," she says of the people of Perpignon, "my Catalans have as much warmth in their hearts as they have guttural sounds in their voices."

--- Erika Rider, MA
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