Chapbook exploration: “Fables with Fangs” by Christopher Morgan

Originally published at gnathic.

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My copy of Christopher Morgan’s Fables with Fangs (2016 Ghost City Press; cover art by Christopher Morgan) arrived with a personal note written across the title page. One of the wonderful things about social media is that you can interact with artists you may never have had the chance to meet in person. And Chris is one of the warmest and most welcoming poets I’ve encountered in the social media realm. He also selflessly encourages other poets in their craft.

This chapbook was part of Ghost City Press’ 2016 Summer Micro-Chapbook Series edited by Kevin Bertolero. Christopher made the cover art and, upon reading these eight poems, I think the cover art is apt. It’s a gorgeous layering of ghostly trees in an intermittently darkened and sunlit trail through a weald in hues of slate blues, charcoals, and pastel yellows. My copy is one of a limited 1st Edition print run, the eleventh of only twenty. Truly exclusive. Get yours while they last directly from Chris @andlohespoke.

I’ve been fortunate to read Christopher’s poems in the past. We connected after we both had works published by the now-defunct theNewerYork Press (tNY) in poster form. His work was Bomb Boy and it was made into a poster designed by the talented Nils Davey. You can find Christopher’s Bomb Boy story in tNY’s archives (linked above). Christopher’s poems seem to come from a place of deep examination, from the journey of suffering that only those who allow themselves to be sensitive to the world around them fully experience. In these poems, the rage of Bomb Boy is not gone but may be more filled out, a Bomb Man. This fact does not detract but enrich.

Beginning with the first fable, “My Doppelganger, The Furnace”, you see that Christopher knows this truth about himself (My double is a nastier version / of myself. Or he’s kinder…) but second guesses it. And how could anyone be sure? The self that is our other self, the self that we watch from inside, the self that amazes or pleases or frightens us, Christopher sees that self and wants you to see it, too. Maybe it is dissociative, but it’s what people do. He is owning it in verses that flow like a conversation with You. You are sitting across the table from Christopher, both sipping tea or coffee, and in his eyes behind his smile he is warning and welcoming at once: what lessons you learn from his fables are up to you.

The warning in his verses develops further in “Omen” where the stanzas tumble like the pieces of granite hammered (villagers took hammers / to the black mountain. / Broke the granite / until it was barely alive.). Suddenly everything in nature is dying in the midst of a man-made destruction, a cycle of violence without beginning or end, a Jericho. It is impossible to know where it started or how to stop it.

The poet wakes up in “Red Sun” and we sense a kind of hope in the little whispers / of sunlight. But like hope always does, it flickers maybe like the sun through trees on a windy day. And in waking up we are disoriented (I couldn’t tell the difference / between swimming and dreaming.) and wondering what does a red sky in the morning mean? Storm. And if the sun itself is red? Red in fables is always a warning.

But then Christopher goes to a past place in “Under Control” (on the playground again), and whether he is only the shadow or also one of the Little monsters playing and laughing or being swallowed whole by darkness, or all of these things, we are nodding our heads in a kind of agreement with him. The poet takes us with him always, as is his job, and he doesn’t forget we’re here. He gifts a bolded stanza where every line ends in a fricative s/z, a hissing that can be ominous or playful, teasing or mocking, warning or alluring. We think of how children in fables get lost and how it is always their own fault, as if the lesson could possibly be that a child could outsmart the darkness.

He moves on to a stopping place, “The Wall.” A woman and a man are locked in a nightmare. Christopher shows you how gruesome it can be to be consumed by a place and how helpless/hopeless it is to try to pull someone back from that place when what is left of them is only pieces of what you believed in (A leg dangles. His warped lips stretch / like taffy…). Then the realization that you may have held on too long (Teeth glisten overhead.) and how you can be all of the parts in this poem at once. What you learn from this fable is caution.

Now the poet snaps his fingers at you to bring you out of the nightmare (Pay attention. I can only perform / this trick once.) and see him in “An Older Me”. Here the truth is a movement in verse from still to frantic, all for display. We want to see, but isn’t it voyeuristic and shouldn’t we be ashamed? (Does my flailing / to hold everything at once / make me more appealing?) Yet Christopher shines at you, both him and his doppelganger, the two (plus) sides of him, even if you close your eyes. He will not stop. The Bomb Boy threatens with an internal rhyme that glitters at you, coaxes you.

So maybe this is the only way the poet can face “The Bear”. We are with him as a boy who wants to see and not see this bear, torn between fear and wanting to fight (I’m opening my door just a crack.). He locks the door of his sister’s room, [b]ut what can / locks do against a bear? The entire poem is suspense and you are suspended in the place where a child is in time. And like every bad dream we don’t know what happens next. So we move on warily. The lesson seems to be the fear that you must face.

In “Georgia” we search with the poet in a wild world. We are informed on the back page of the chapbook that Christopher grew up for part of his life in Georgia. It is plain to see that, like a poet must, he observed the place closely. In the heat of it, the sweat and swamp of it, he gives you the sting of fire ants and the venom of snakes with the satisfying repetition of k-sounds stopping hard at the velum: fire ants attacking an abandoned cracker; slicks back; dabs its neck; rat snakes; the murk; a whip crack; a king snake; red on black means venom lacked. It’s a poem full of ferocious sounds that follows a series of seven relentless fables and he gives it to you like a treat, almost a relief. This is an outside poem after seven inside poems. But it doesn’t let you off the hook. You as reader are still weighing out good and evil as with any fable, as you balance the poet’s word and the poet’s world.

My immediate response after reading these Fables with Fangs was that I was unprepared for them. I think I tweeted at Chris that they took me by surprise, or caught me off guard. And I think that in itself is a lesson. When reading Christopher Morgan’s poetry you should always prepare yourself for the hidden place it will expose in you. It will be painful, but with promise. Most appropriately, Chris chose to quote Rumi as a preface to the chapbook: The cure for the pain is in the pain. If art does not make you work, then what is the point of it? I am thankful for this connection through art, this balancing of the world.

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Review of Beth Grindstaff’s “This Fragile Husk”

This review was originally posted at gnathic.

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Beth Grindstaff completed her poetry collection, This Fragile Husk (Finishing Line Press, 2016, cover art by Beth), to the appreciation of her adoring friends and fans––people like me. I first encountered Beth through the social networking platform called Tumblr. Her blog, paradigmpoet, was a haven in a storm of social media. Beth is one of those people who have made me thankful for slogging through the social media experience. The poems she posted on that blog were a source of inspiration for me. Beth’s voice was always clear and strong. She is, and has been since the time I encountered her, a warrior. I have often addressed her as such––”Hey, warrior woman!”––and she graciously accepts the moniker. When I first called her a warrior (and I was not the first to do so), I had no idea how much of a warrior she was to become. I do not think she did, either.

As I fell out of love with Tumblr’s platform, I made sure to keep in contact with Beth. We sent emails and even wrote letters through the U.S. Mail. We sent each other poems and poured our hearts out on the paper and digital pages, knowing we would keep each others’ confidences. Very soon into that period, Beth was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She explained the processes she was going through in her letters in heart-wrenching detail. Ever the warrior, her voice remained strong––even as she grieved, even as she railed against the Fates. She would document long bicycle rides she had begun to take and which provided her a kind of physical relief. She would go to work in the midst of a snowstorm because she knew her boss depended on her. And she would express thanks for her true love and concern for the effect this journey with MS would have on the both of them. Beth is strong. Beth is giving. Beth is a warrior.

As I read the poems in her latest publication, This Fragile Husk, I remembered how Beth expressed to me that her poems were changing, that her voice was changing. Beth has always had a gift for depicting the tragedy-and-beauty sushi roll that is the world around us. She has performed her poems before groups of people who I can only imagine must have listened in astonished silence. So when I prepared to read the twenty-two poems in this collection, I was excited. Knowing some of what Beth has been going through by following her Instagram posts, I expected this book of poems to sing in a new voice. And this book of poems does sing in the way a cello sings. The only proper accompaniment to these poems is a solo cellist laboring lovingly over J.S. Bach’s cello suites, one by one.

The collection opens with her poem “Once”. As it begins to unfurl it hesitates, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s “How She Bowed to Her Brother”, with periods not commas, ends that are not endings but stops, like stumbling or catching your breath before you embark with trepidation. Every kind of cracking sound exists in this poem, porcelain, skull, leaking vessel, creaking wood. The poet is looking at herself in the mirror of a lake, seeing the myriad aspects that make up her entirety. She finds it, the myth as proof, and moves through this entirety, using that mirrored surface to see into the past and maybe a distance into the future, but always seeing her present.

Beth goes on to envision the forked tongue of the horizon in her poem “Everything, everything” where, with repetition and subtle alliteration, her will and the weight of things must yield somehow to worship and memory of winter. She becomes a bird of her self crashing into a false sky in “The way I want to be gone”. Here, she indulges on the edge of hopelessness but never drowns. She knows the bruises but never ceases to persevere; she wait[s] like silt in the throat of a storm. The reader senses eternity.

Beth maneuvers through the complicated mourning of loved ones in poems like “Granny”, “Legacy”, “Planting Tomatoes”, “For Cyndie”, and “To my father, on the six-year anniversary of his death”; and the reader cannot help but share this painful grief with Beth because of our vowels and a kind of shared blood that insists in her phrasing. Where she mourns in short line-lengths, the echo of memory extends the verses. And, in a way, her mourning culminates in her “Death Sutra”. The poem takes you away to places that unfold like the most familiar nightmare that you’ve somehow come to love. Every stanza begins [b]eyond colors and sensations and we are left wandering with Beth yet somehow remembered, known.

She coaxes you through the pain of her disease in poems like “Tales of a hard winter (March 7th)”, “Findings of demyelinating disease persist”, or “Diagnosis” which give you her blinding ache[s], her body capsized by pain, her silences [t]o mourn what is to come. In these recollections she is painstaking, giving the reader sensory details (dog’s velvet fur and Bartlett pears blooming, the ragged sermons of winter and the needle … pulled) familiar, yet not necessarily what you might have noticed had you lived it. And always the careful attention to phrasing, the delicate usage of language (loss of mothering bone/to the cold), and the associations made by ones who, like Beth, see the world with eyes more open and arms spread wider–these things are evident throughout Beth’s verses.

Ever present in these poems is the warrior voice. Beth has changed, but Beth remains. The warrior in her voice has always expressed the anguish of life as she pressed on through battles, and her latest battle has only given her more of herself, more ammunition to use in her battle. Beth’s poems approach the world with an elegance and a perceptiveness that readers will understand more with each reading. Her poetry gives you Beth’s essence and Beth’s presence. A strong present it is.

killing time

Sundays at the Monteleon
she tells me about Tarzan
1957 – she met the oldest living one
later at the Absinthe House she met another
based on this, she is convinced
all actors who portray Tarzan are nice men
in the background, a banjo player
singing like Satchmo
a clarinet player
a stand up bass

Medium

Eunoia Review

Some cheer for chained melodies
while the music of the spheres echoes
like rain on the surface of water;

it booms like whale songs
traveling thousands of miles in that medium.
Your limbs struggle, but your voice flies.

Sound travels four times faster in water than in air,
still so much slower than light,
yet fast enough to get here in time

to let me know you’re gone.
You breathed in the fluid verses
that strengthened you and drowned me.

Jacqueline M. Pérez writes, argues, takes photographs, and digs in the dirt in the southeastern US. She has been published in The Brasilia Review, tNY Press’s Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature, and the Belleville Park Pages. She writes at http://gnathic.weebly.com.

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These are the eternities

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at the moment my foot became submerged in the Aegean
my invisible friend knew he had fallen down an endless well of emotion
and we both gasped a breath full of dust, memories, and forgotten things

the same moment Joan of Arc felt the first flame flicker on her flesh
the exact second I fell in love with you
an eagle’s egg hatched

a thousand-year bloom burst open
an unnamed creature pulled itself from the ocean
the Russian winter of 1812

at approximately 4:30 AM, February 11, 1963, the poet placed her head in the oven
the first narwhal was sighted
the first word was spoken in anger

the first thought was written in despair
the fig blossom became fruit
you touched me

a divine wind stopped a Mongol horde
a man turned out his lights and went to sleep
it was yesterday

it was 6,420 C.E.
it was today
we were together

we were singing
we were screaming
the storm calmed

someone lied to you
fingers strummed strings
music reached their ears

an old woman was comforted
my voice cracked

I kissed you

I kissed you

Water

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This pond vibrates a gentle hum
while I approach, brimming with water.

Frogs grumble in agreement
yeeaaahhh—they croak—yeeaaahhh
while the sinking sun slips silently;

a wary deer riffs a dressage
through still-dry grass crackling
crunching last autumn’s detritus,

unsure of me—if I’m there or where
aware of herself and sure I am near.

She stomps a cautious passepied
punctuated by huffs and snorts,
in four-direction demonstration.

Frogs grown silent pick up again,
a softer, longer yeaahhhh.

Birds lull low in the dimming light.
A fish smacks one last snack.

I came to cry, but forgot.