Take the Berlin-Warszawa Express

Berlin—Warszawa Express
By Eamon McGrath
98 pages
2017
ECW Press

Constant acceleration may be the gateway pace to spiritual illumination, but it’s also an eventual route to physical burnout. Hooked on (and hanging on for dear life) to that Beat Generation tradition, Eamon
McGrath relates a rabid hobo quest for experience in Berlin—Warszawa Express.

Instead of poets bumming from Times Square to New Orleans or into the mountains of the North Cascades National Park, McGrath gives us indie punk grebos stumbling through Eastern Europe – and mainly Berlin to Warsaw. (The titular Berlin-Warszawa Express is a cross-border train route that, well, goes between Berlin and Warsaw in about 6.5 hours.) The scraggly milieu that McGrath travel-logs about (in what is a fictionalized account of the indie-rocker’s own touring life with his band and as a solo act) is a sub-culture that is ravenous for new experience but never satisfied with what it hunts down. The novel has a frenzied narrative to match, with McGrath burning from one gig to the next, one bar to the next, and one country to the next, with an insatiable appetite for fresh encounters.

Like the best work of the early Beat writers, the narrative action here is grounded in – or ungrounded
with – that constant need for movement. But McGrath’s prose is neither a big Kerouacean religious
meditation on transience, nor a deliberative John Clellon Holmes-like study of art and popular culture. It
is a sleek and efficient account that greases his thoughts and keeps them rolling at maximum speed along with the geography of the journey.

And, to McGrath, everything may ultimately be just about the journey for the sake of the journey, with
no transcendence available. Even when he returns home at one point to undertake a mini-tour through
Canada, he realizes that “all I could think about was how much I wanted to return to Europe.” While
McGrath never defines what he is looking for past the searching itself, that conundrum gives him pause for
consideration. At one point, encountering a “punishingly loud three-piece free jazz band from Warsaw playing at a breakneck volume” and drowned in this tsunami of sound, he experiences his own satori:

Amid this cacophony, I knew that I was in a place where no time existed. I was a prisoner of my own chains, I had lived my life trapped by confines that I had created. True freedom existed somewhere and at this point in my life, in Berlin, I was as close to it as I would ever be, or at least had ever been. All this would fade to memory in seconds, but there was something that felt so violently everlasting in that big, circling noise.

Along with music, booze is a key driver here – a travelling partner, a fuel, but also as great a risk to the
body as restlessness may be to the soul. A hangover leaves McGrath feeing pinned down with “the
familiar feeling of weight…It’s like all your thoughts are pained and clogged, and goop flows through your existence – the kind of viscous, molasses hangover where everything is slow. Then we got on the train and we went to Austria.” The artificial joy is both a stimulant to the journey and an entropic drag.

Still, McGrath continues to offer the reader beauty with the ruin, as the rush of the poetry of his language mimics that restless, relentless travel:

Cars race by on the Gürtel, laughing drunk brutes come and go from the doorway of Thaliastrasse U-Bahn station, and as we hear the hum of Vienna rise up in a soothing roar, Esteban and I both laugh and drink and know that amid all this trash and unhindered humanity is something beautiful that could only be birthed by the mother that is the tender
warm hands of the night.

The quest for new experience is certainly a Sisyphean journey for McGrath – but it’s also a thrill ride for
the reader.

Hop onboard.

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A Few Snapshots

The most direct and simple poetic forms, like haiku and tanka, offer the means for direct and simple moments to touch the eternal. They combine subjective observation with objective imagery that hooks brief moments into universal, repeating cycles.

The challenge for working with these forms and making them relevant to a modern reader is the quaint view many of us have of their inherent Muse: that is, Nature. Readers are more likely to recognize simple truths through a pop culture meme than the weather on Mount Fuji.

The UK-based Snapshot Press takes this as a challenge, offering explorations of small slices of modern life through compact traditional works, from the haibun to the haiku. Their publishing schedule includes a yearly contest that results in a trove of echapbooks that yield a variety of answers. In the 2017 batch, tanka and haiku offer sharp moments of emotional and/or philosophical revelation. Some of the collections are familiar, grounded in flora, fauna and reflection; others reveal more inward gazes and sombre sighs.

The most markedly contemporary is A Dawn of Ghosts, in which Thomas Powell combines the power and familiarity of the short line with a modern vernacular, as he observes “the darkness beneath/pond skaters” or “the wool and bones/of a passing winter”. His are enriching examples of how language can make form relevant and contemporary.

And all are examples of how to find the eternal in the briefest, most transient snapshots.

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Try a Read of Try Never

Try Never

By Anthony Madrid

50 pages

2017

Canarium Books

Try Never actually tries a little bit of everything in its 50 brief pages. As a result, they are overflowing in poetic styles, allusions, music and imagery. Whether voiced out loud or sung in your head, Anthony Madrid’s collection presents a rhythmically diverse and dynamically alive universe, but one in which consciousness is trying to grasp identity in an ultrafast, cluttered, post-modern existence.

Rhythmic and rhyming (whether internal, end, or otherwise) poetry can easily trip into sing-songy triteness. But Try Never is built on a solid frame of verse that still flexes with enough rhythmic variance to keep up a challenging, sometimes syncopated, beat. 

The stanzas are drum-tight, with rhyme, half-rhyme and alliteration pounding out the syllables. In a poem like ‘Quinacenera’, the rhymes also tumble from one verse into another in a continuous rhythmic cartwheel. The effect can be like listening to a virtuoso guitar player who thrumbs a steady bass-line on the bottom strings with his base digit, while the rest pluck up and down the frets of the four highest ones. 

Think of a truncated Gerard Manley Hopkins mixed over a slighly funkier Tuck Andress.

In content, Try Never is not narratively cohesive. The poems present a multitude of ground-level snapshots of a sort of apocalypse of the mundane: a “Boarded-up shop” faces a “Severe terror rain”; a “basketball held underwater/Wants violently to come up”. You may have to piece meaning together out of the disparate images throughout the poems, but once you do, you get a full view of quiet desperation. 

Try Never delivers a blurrying amount of potential significance in the rush of imagery. But the repetition, rhyme and rhythm keep it all in focus. 

Try it right now, right here

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Dusting Off: Borb

Well, not quite dusting off (Borb was published in 2015 by Uncivilized Books) so much as catching up with a unique work in the line of Orwell, Bukowski and Jackson that’s also a tragic poem in graphic novel form. Woven from a collection of self-contained comic strips that could have been clipped from a few months-worth of newspapers, Jason Little’s dialogue-light panels recount the drunken very-misadventures of the alcoholic and homeless titular character. Each strip is a verse in the overall tragedy, superficially echoing a variety of down-in-the-gutter literary works, but completely devoid of any (even bleak) romanticism. Borb is still compassionate, if clinically so: Little’s vision is a surgically precise imagination of the anti-life of Borb, bleakly-lyrical as it presents the flaws that led to his downfall, the physical toll that alcoholism and homelessness wreaks on his body, soul and mind, and the lack of responsibility on the part of the modern polis that pins him tight in the gutter. And the narrative cycle of the book, starting in medias res and leaping back in time to the edge of Borb’s fall, threatens to implicate the reader in the whole process – proving no one gets out of this gutter unsullied.

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A Literary Listen to Chaos & Star Records

Beautiful Children With Pet Foxes: The Single, by Jennifer LoveGrove, Christine Fellows and John K. Samson

Rich & Poor: The Single, by Jacob Wren and Andrew Whiteman

Vinyl Recordings/MP3 Files

Chaos & Star Records/BookThug Inc.

2017

Serious artistic collaboration between writers and musicians has a rich history in North American popular culture, reaching back at least to Jack Kerouac riffing his poetry in a spontaneous call-and-response jazz improv with saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. While that musical partnership served to accentuate an existing text, the goal of BookThug’s new recording imprint is to produce condensed, fresh artistic creations (along with a little commodification) through blending the talents of indie music artists with indie literary writers.

The results are more like “So There”, the B-side to Mercury Rev’s 1993 single, “The Hum Is Coming From Her”. The avant-rockers teamed with poet Robert Creeley to build an amusement park soundscape beneath a flume of Creeley’s wandering words, turning the poem (originally published in 1976) into an entirely new dramatic work.

These two 7-inch singles from Chaos & Star (solid samples from its continuing series) are meant not just to excerpt existing works and touch them up with a soundtrack. Rather, the intention is to grow new self-contained pieces, through a words-and-music-mash-up that creates dynamic meaning in the closed space of a pop song time-limit.

But the most immediate reaction the music will evoke is that it isn’t pop. For example, Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes contains excerpts from LoveGrove’s poetry collection of the same name, set to abstract, ambient sounds that morph the poems into dark lullabies. They will not remind you of John K. Samson’s work with The Weakerthans. The sparse undercurrents feature lightly plucked and bowed strings that gently urge LoveGrove’s slow, deliberate delivery forward, knotting music and words into a series of hypnotic tides; or tapped keys that float through and between the words, buffeting, and occasionally coarsening, the poems.

Rich & Poor moves from sparse, classically influenced music, to a bit of Philip Glass, to industrial stamping that fuels the rage inherent in Jacob Wren’s novel about a man plotting to kill a member of the rich elite in a self-styled revolutionary act. The shift of musical genres paints an aural portrait of class difference, ranging from smooth aesthetics to rhythmic, guttural rage. And that’s just the A-side. The flip plays like an extended remix, one that pumps up the industrial angst while more explicitly underscoring the not-so-simmering anger that is inherent in today’s growing economic divide.

In the playlist ecosystem of the contemporary music industry, the single is king. Similarly, in the information world, the bite-sized chunk is the preferred serving for digestion. Chaos & Star Records isn’t trying to transform literature into a series of playlists or twitter-essays. This format offers a bit of a modern choice for the literary and/or music-minded to consume their art in – even if the vinyl option represents a bit of a hipster throwback.

Flip through the new arrivals here.

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A Read with Moonglasses

Moonglasses Magazine

July 2017 & September 2017

Reading Moonglasses Magazine is less like sitting back and cracking open a copy of Mad, or leaning forward to click through The Onion, and more like a night out at The Improv. You enjoy a series of comedic monologues that are slight on narrative and long on first-person-driven conceits. But the pieces that make up the latest issues of Moonglasses also have a literary virtuosity that makes up in appealing strangeness for what they might lack in straight-ahead laughs.

From the July issue, Ricky Garni’s “Since We All Die, Why Do We Have People Die (In The Movies)?” is a poem that rapid-fires its imagery, like Steven Wright on a PCP-laced speedball. “Insecta Dermaptera” by Kathryn Lee Wilgus (September) is a bit of Kafka-turned-John-Carpenter that is humour for the not-so squeamish. Kyle Hemmings’ “Notes on The Biography of E. H. Munch” (September) is more of a traditional parody, successful in both ridiculing intellectual pretention while, in turn, just goofing around in a Without Feathers-era Woody Allen mode.

The regular ‘Things We Wrote When We Had Acne’ feature is a bit of inspired self-curation, where grown-up writers dig into their personal vaults to offer up works they wrote back when, well, they had acne. Jared Moore’s tale of heroic video-game immersion, “Mortal Fury”, and Taylor Fang’s Shel Silversteinian “Food” are solidly juvenile yet charged with the pure, unbridled creative fervour that only youth can bring – and generally, wish to offer up to an unsuspecting audience.

If you want to spend some time examining life through a warmly-warped perspective like these ‘Moonglasses’ provide, put them on here.

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These are the Terms

Terms and Conditions: The Graphic Novel
By R. Sikoryak
107 pages
2017
Drawn & Quarterly

Satire can be a very serious thing.

Often found wrapped tightly in layers of meaning and texture, be they comic or otherwise, satire is worked at from within a much denser medium than the cheap laughs of farce and with more complex literary weapons than simple ribaldry or puns. It can reflect the world back at us in extra dimensions; advocate for a specific point of view while excoriating others; and inform while entertaining. From John Dryden and Alexander Pope to Kurt Vonnegut and Flann O’Brien, up to latter-day practitioners like T.C. Boyle, satirists are experts at confounding and amusing simultaneously.

Juxtaposition is a tool that offers a way to exploit sensibility and subjectivity through making fun of opposing viewpoints, while also pointing to some sort of resolution of the opposition. And pastiche is juxtaposition’s key ally. It’s a smarter version of imitation that does not simply rip off another writer or make fun of a target (as with simple parody) but creates new, slightly warped versions of reality.

R. Sikoryak’s Terms and Conditions is an audacious epic of juxtaposition and pastiche that tackles one of the behemoths of modern culture: Apple Inc. Sikoryak takes the ‘terms and conditions’ that we all automatically agree to, almost on faith, when we sign up for the cornucopia of the Apple ecosystem (including but not limited to iTunes) and uses the graphic novel form to flesh out and delightfully illustrate every section and sub-section. He does this via slightly skewed versions of well- and less-known scenes and characters from the history of comics and graphic novels. A variety of versions of Steve Jobs is integrated in each, appearing as hero or villain or stooge. Here: as part of the gag in an Archie strip; there: cued up with The Walking Dead crew.

In Terms and Conditions, the esoteric legalese that consumers gleefully ignore like the calorie content fine print at the bottom of a burger menu is mashed-up against a breezy rainbow of action-packed illustration. The panels reflect the banal obsequiousness of the ‘terms and conditions’ through a Garfield strip in one instance. The demanding nature of their restrictions is accented roughly as Beetle Bailey is berated with them in his barracks in another. They are rendered absurd when jammed into the narrative of the primitive “Albert and Pogo” strip (from way back in 1946) to outline the consequences one faces when opting into the “Popular Near Me” feature. Sikoryak brings it all to a close as a contemplative Jobs-i-fied Ziggy watches the sunset at the beach, while gently informing us of the last time the terms were updated.

The joke and overall point turns on this invasion. Steve Jobs and Apple infiltrate the history of popular culture much as, in the real world, the tech giant absorbs the marketplace for everything from books to games to TV shows – and then turns around and mediates consumers’ access to their content through an evolving rights landscape they don’t bother to map before-hand.

What does it say about us? The target of the satire is our essential irresponsibility, as we trade control of aspects of our lives and actions to satisfy our immediate desires. But, on the bright side, the way Sikoryak livens up the terms and conditions actually offers a way for us to start engaging more responsibly in the consequences of some of our most basic, and frequently occurring, consumption choices.

Agree to the Terms & Conditions.

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