Selected Book Reviews from Issue #47
Cover Art: by Linda Hillringhouse, Descending Figures with Bird and Dog,
2019, gouache on paper, 10 ½" x 14 ½"
Three Women and The River or The Englishman Who Forgot His Own Name: A Love Saga of the Great War
by William Harry Harding
Garden Oak Press, Rainbow, CA, 2018
Reviewed by William Mohr
The hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I has drawn very little attention in the current political climate of the United States. It is possible that in Great Britain, France, and Germany, as well as Italy, this centenary is being given the solemn attention it deserves, but one wonders if the majority of people who voted in the U.S. elections just a few days ago even know that this country played a significant role in World War I. One doesn’t want to make passing a history test a preliminary requirement for exercising one’s right to vote, since that will only lead to voter suppression correlated with racial and class privileges, but the question does need to be asked: how many people in the United States could name at least two other belligerents in that war? Without that knowledge, the full resonance of current events will persist in being diabolically elusive. The formal dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, for instance, in the political negotiations after the war is still playing out: the recently murdered journalist in a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey could be said to be the most prominent victim of the continuing aftershocks of that war. Those who ordered his execution are the direct descendants of those who came to power only because of the devious perfidy of the war’s victors.
In publishing Three Woman and The River on November 11, 2018, novelist William Harry Harding has refused to concede that this date should pass with so little pause. Indeed, the scale of his novel about a soldier who survives combat but who endures the lingering trauma of being charged with desertion demands that a reader pay tribute to the memory of those who perished by putting aside one’s daily tasks and taking on a substantial narrative. Three Women and the River is an old-fashioned novel, in fact, the kind of historical fiction that would have been familiar to the reading public in the decades immediately following World War I. The subtitle hints at Harding’s intent and primary theme: “A love saga of the Great War.” The bulk of the novel devotes itself not to the perils of combat, but to the arduous transformation of Reg Olcutt, a young man whose romantic destiny enfolds him within an unexpected exile. Midway through his odyssey, he finds himself gazing “at himself in street windows, hospital mirrors, the dressing mirror in the water closet at (a newspaper) office.” Olcutt is understandably askance: “He looked like the man he never expected to be, yet there he stood.”
Given the scale and historical trajectory of the protagonist’s transformation, the book itself might have been better served if it had included a table of contents in which each section was notched with its page numbers. In giving the reader an outline of sorts, the book would hardly give away any secrets or surprises, but would instead help orient the reader in making this imaginative journey. This is a minor quibble, however, for Harding’s prose is always attuned to serving the reader with its keen eye for the details of the character’s habitats, whether it be the trenches of the Western Front or a vineyard near a mountainous combat zone.
Harding’s novel is based on meticulous research, which must have taken years of notetaking before the novel could be composed. It is quite remarkable that he managed to finish the novel so that it could serve as a testament to a war that undermined all the core tenets of civilization’s social contracts. In such a long novel, one has to admire the masterful self-control and discipline of Harding as a novelist. There is no surrender to the obvious temptation to wrap up the story and deliver our protagonist to his happy-ever-after. The final scene itself reveals that the soldier has finally completed his metamorphosis and become a writer capable of making his life visible to the reader in the manner of the writers he admires and has come into contact with in the course of his travails. The impact of any book is unknown to its first readers, but this book deserves a place on every library’s shelf, so that on the second centennial of World War I’s armistice day, readers can judge how many of the lessons of that war had to be repeated, all the way through.
Bill Mohr’s literary history, Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2011. His most recent volume of poems is a bilingual edition from What Books, The Headwaters of Nirvana / Los Manantiales del Nirvana (2018). He blogs at billmohrpoet.com; his website is koankinship.com.
William Harry Harding has written three novels – Rainbow, Young Hart, Mill Song – and a children’s book – Alvin’s Famous No-Horse – all from Henry Holt. His recent work has appeared in the Paterson Literary Review and LIPS. He chairs an arts non-profit and publishes the San Diego Poetry Annual.
The Place of Our Meeting
by Donna Emerson
Finishing Line Press, 2018
Reviewed by Eniko Vaghy
Very rarely—if ever—does a perfect bound collection of poems refuse to be called a book. The act of holding the physical object, of flipping through its pages would seem to drive home its primacy—however, when I was given the chance to review Donna Emerson’s The Place of Our Meeting, I could not define her series of poems in this way, for they didn’t just “read” for me—they “drew.” As I delved deeper into the marvelous world of Emerson’s poetry, I found myself approaching her collection as if it were a compact gallery and each of its poems an individual painting secured before me on the wall.
In The Place of Our Meeting, Emerson’s poetic gallery is laden with intimate portraits of affection, loss, fear, and strength as well as expansive landscapes that are animated in a profound tradition I have decided to call the “living ekphrastic.” Here, Emerson appoints natural environments as inspirational works of art and sets them blooming with her vibrant brand of imagery, verse, and soul. In the poem “Radiance,” Emerson’s speaker stills an encounter with a cow on a hill and analyzes the scene until it evolves from a commonplace occurrence, to a profound sight that carries a larger message of endurance. Emerson’s speaker elevates the cow to the status of a noble heroine, describing the animal’s stance as, “Sturdy, surveying all below, / as if she’d just / been crowned” (14). Towards the end of the poem, the cow is compared to the windblown yet steadfast subject of Claude Monet’s Woman in a Parasol, Facing Left as the cow’s back, like Monet’s model, is “…wide and slightly slung, / her feet planted as if to stay, / in spite of heat, drought, wind.” (14). Though Emerson’s manner of examining and glorifying nature could be interpreted as a response to the phrase “Life imitates art,” Emerson reconceptualizes this message to reveal that, in reality, there is no imitation, but simply a state of being—life is art.
This quality of illustrating one’s natural surroundings reconfigures the notion of artistic space as well as what constitutes a work of “art” and how it should be experienced. For Emerson, works of art not only demand one’s viewership but one’s immersion. In several poems in The Place of Our Meeting, Emerson’s speaker exhibits a profound willingness to plunge into every work of art she encounters and descend within it until the core of its meaning is reached. Though Emerson’s speaker wades through the creative efforts of illustrious individuals such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Emerson’s speaker’s unquestioning acceptance and admiration of art is not primarily confined to that of the famous. In fact, in one of my favorite poems of the collection titled “First Day of Kindergarten and Eleven Years Later,” Emerson’s speaker decides to immerse herself in a painting created by her young daughter.
Though children’s artwork is often fleetingly cherished—perhaps treated to a limited viewing on the refrigerator—before being lost in a box or discretely discarded, Emerson’s speaker demonstrates the importance of returning to the work of one’s child. There is something fully human about this experience—for one, the canvas is afforded a “torso” that sloshes with “blustery waves,” but there is something even more interpersonal about the poem. Like two individuals who meet every day, Emerson’s speaker and the painting engage in a symbiotic relationship where the painting gradually reveals another precious facet of itself and leaves Emerson’s speaker with a new impression of its identity. “At times I see the deep ocean…” the speaker claims, “…the height / of wave-splash against the boat. / At times I see how red the sturdy ship. // At times I feel the wing flap / of the five large water birds above. / Of late I see how free the birds, / how unfinished the air in which they fly (20).
After eleven years of looking at her daughter’s painting, Emerson’s speaker is no closer to coming to a resolution of its meaning than when her daughter first completed it. Whereas this could be interpreted as a failure on the speaker’s part to completely “know” the painting Emerson represents this moment as an example of the benefits of growing with a work of art. Though the speaker is familiar with the painting, she is still discovering it—as a result, the painting continues to live for and with her.
What Emerson achieves in “First Day of Kindergarten and Eleven Years Later,”—and throughout most of The Place of Our Meeting, for that matter—is a subtle suggestion of how all works of art should be approached; that is, not rigidly with stubbornly held biases or expectations, but with all the graciousness of an outstretched hand awaiting the contact of another’s touch, which may prove cold or stickily warm but nevertheless communicative, responsive. The Place of Our Meeting persuades its readers to engage with every type of art—the kind preserved on canvas, through words, and in the world—and to form devoted relationships with it. Instead of expecting this artful universe to serve us, Emerson suggests we should stand before it eagerly; ready to start a conversation that, once begun, may shift and even pause but never end.
Eniko Vaghy is currently a graduate student at SUNY Binghamton University earning her master's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. When she is not writing poetry or reviews, you can find her exploring the beauty of her hometown of Binghamton with all the zeal of a first-time tourist.
Donna Emerson’s recent publications include The New Ohio Review, Sanskrit, the London Review, Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California, Tiferet, and Evening Street. She has four published chapbooks and her book The Place of Our Meeting (2018) was nominated for a California Book Award. Visit her website to view poems and awards: donnaemerson.com.